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The Oldest Cup Competition

Friday January 4

Aon Training Complex, Carrington, UK

Just as Kakeru predicted some time ago, he was cleared by the medical staff to train with the other players on the pitch on Wednesday (January 2). On that day, the training session mainly involved players who didn't play the match on New Year's Day.

After Kakeru got rid of the slight nervousness on his first training session, his predatory instincts did the talk when simulated 5-a-side matches and 1v1s were on the menu.

Then on the following 2 days, Kakeru took part in training sessions with the full team. Although almost everyone on the team expected Kakeru to look perhaps rusty, the Knight in the Area did a very good job at holding his ground against the healthy first-team players. On Friday, Kakeru and Nana took part in the light training session that is typical of what is done on the eve of the match. After the training session, Kakeru and Nana, still dressed in their training kits, were waiting in the dressing room to discover what plans the manager, Andrew Butler, had for each of them.

"That was another good training session today. I'm feeling good out there." Kakeru said before he took a sip of energy drink.

"It may be a little early for a full return into a competition, but it's very encouraging indeed." Nana replied.

"I'll tell you this, Knight: you look a lot closer to come out with a bang. We really need that." Matthias said.

"Yeah, but I will wait to hear from the Boss first. I know he will take the right decision." Kakeru replied.

"We'll know very soon." Nana said.

Then Michael came in to ask for Kakeru and Nana.

"Knight, Witch. The Gaffer wants to see you in his office." Michael said.

"OK, we're coming." Kakeru replied.

"Well, see you later, you two." Matthias said.

Kakeru and Nana walked their way towards Andrew's office. Walking in front, Nana knocked at the door.

"Come in." Andrew summoned.

Kakeru and Nana then went into the manager's office, and closed the door behind them. Such personal meetings with the manager on the eve of the match usually inform players about what to expect for the match itself.

"It won't take long, you two. I'll start with Mishima." Andrew said.

"I'm listening, Boss."

"Just to give you the heads-up, Mishima, you will start on the bench for tomorrow. Since you played the full 90 minutes on Tuesday, I'll rotate the squad and start with different midfielders. Still, make sure you're ready to make an impact if I call you in. Understood?" Andrew said.

"Yes, Boss." Nana replied.

"As for you, Aizawa, I'm really happy with the progress you've made on your 3rd day of training on the pitch. That experiment with you as the front striker of a more mobile front 3 is something I look forward to use more in the second half of the season, and you have done well so far." Andrew said.

"Thank you, Boss." Kakeru replied.

"But, as you already know, FA Cup matches are all blood and thunder. It's not quite the perfect setting to send you in for a return just yet."

"I understand." Kakeru replied.

"However, I think you will have your chance to play with the U23 against the Fulham U23s in a week's time. And everything goes well, you will have your shot against Newcastle on the Monday night after that."

"Yes, Boss! You won't be disappointed." Kakeru said.

"Keep working hard in training, and you'll get your opportunity out on the pitch, lad." Andrew gave his last words of advice to Kakeru before addressing to both Japanese players. "I'm counting on both of you when the time will call for it."

"Yes, Boss." Kakeru and Nana replied.

"That's all." Andrew finished.

Kakeru and Nana then left the manager's office. They expected a better outcome from the training sessions like any proud athlete, but they had to swallow their pride for this time.

"Not exactly what I was hoping, but I guess it was expected." Kakeru said as he and Nana were walking in the corridor.

"Yeah, I don't think I would have done anything different if I was in his shoes." Nana replied.

"At least, you can come on if you get the nod at some point tomorrow."

"Well, we'll wait and see how things pan out." Nana said. "I have been told that the players who are not expected to play tomorrow can either watch the match from a private box at Villa Park or from the away supporters' end. Which one will you take?"

"I will take the away supporters." Kakeru replied. "I really want to enjoy the match with the best away support in the country for once."

"That's great. Noriko and Sarah already told me that they will be among the away supporters for the match." Nana said.

"They will?" Kakeru asked.

"Yep! Noriko once talked to me about how Villa Park is something special in her heart as a supporter of this club."

"What did she mean by that, Nana?"

"It's about a number of past matches where United won in that stadium, I guess. I think you can ask her when you'll get there." Nana replied.

"I will surely ask her about it." Kakeru said.

Then Kakeru and Nana met Matthias again in the hallway.

"So, what did the Boss say about tomorrow?" Matthias asked.

"For me, he said that it's too early to be in the squad for this match. But he expects me ready for the next U23 match though." Kakeru said.

"Sounds good. That match is exactly 3 days before the Newcastle game, and it's possible to play both." Matthias replied. "What about you, Witch?"

"Well, he said that I will be in the squad, but he will go with squad rotation in midfield." Nana said.

"It's always at this time of the year that a good squad rotation pays dividends come the month of May. I have seen many teams come out flat at the end because they didn't rotate the squad well enough." Matthias said.

"Yeah, you're probably right." Kakeru said.

"I know that every proud athlete will never say no to playing anytime or anywhere, but this is why the manager is important. He's the one taking the decisions who may be unpopular, but that are right for the sake of the entire squad."

Kakeru and Nana nodded in agreement.

"So, what will you do tomorrow, Knight?" Matthias asked.

"I'll watch the game with our supporters; I also have a couple of friends there." Kakeru replied.

"Sounds fun. Well, you enjoy your time there tomorrow."

"I sure will, Matthias."

"Matthias, the Gaffer wants to see you." Michael asked Matthias over.

"OK." Matthias replied. "See you later, guys."

"Yep! See you later." Kakeru and Nana finished.

A few hours later, Kakeru, Nana, and the rest of the Manchester United team left Carrington on the private team bus to the South. Once arrived in Birmingham, the team was set to arrive at a local top class hotel where they would hold a tactical video session to study their next opponents, have a team dinner, and then spend the night.

The FA Cup, known officially as The Football Association Challenge Cup, is an annual knockout competition in men's domestic English football. First played during the 1871-72 season, it is the oldest competition in the discipline in the world. The competition is open to any eligible club down to Levels 10 of the English football league system – all 92 professional clubs from the Premier League and the 3 divisions of the English Football League (levels 1 to 4), and several hundred teams from steps 1 to 6 of the National League System (levels 5 to 10). The tournament consists of 12 randomly drawn rounds followed by the semi-finals and the final. Entrants are not seeded although a system of byes ensures higher ranked teams to enter in later rounds. The minimum number of matches required to win the competition ranges from 6 to 14.

Beginning in August, the competition proceeds as a knockout tournament throughout. Prior to the semi-finals, fixtures ending in a tie are replayed at the venue of the away team. If that second fixture also ends in a tie, the winner is settled by a period of extra time, and by a penalty shootout if necessary. The first 6 rounds are qualifiers organized on a regional basis, out of which a total of 32 teams progress to the first round proper of the competition. The last entrants to the competition are Premier League and EFL Championship clubs, into the third round proper.

In the modern era, teams from levels 5 to 10 have never reached the quarterfinals, and teams below level 2 have never reached the final. As a result, significant focus is given to smaller teams that progress furthest, especially if they achieve an unlikely "giant-killing" victory. People in England say that the romance of the FA Cup is when a lower ranked club can be drawn against an opponent from a higher division at any time. The true magic of the FA Cup is when the underdog defeats the favorite. No one can ever truly predict what will happen in the FA Cup, which is an integral part of the prestige and tradition of the competition.

For Manchester United, the first FA Cup fixture of their campaign takes place in a venue that has seen a great share of FA Cup history throughout its existence: Villa Park.

Saturday January 5

Aston Villa vs. Manchester United (FA Cup 3rd round)

Villa Park, Birmingham, UK

5:02 PM GMT

For this match, Kakeru was allowed to join the contingent of 5,900+ away supporters who made the trip from Manchester to Birmingham for the occasion. Since Kakeru arrived in the away supporters' section, he met many of them who follow the club on the road for every away match. From signing autographs to taking selfies and shaking hands, Kakeru was quite enjoying his time although he would have preferred to be on the 18-player squad.

"As you can see, this is how rowdy and happy our away supporters. Every away match, we go non-stop with the chanting." Noriko said.

"It's really amazing. I have heard the away supporters many times before, but it's the first time I can taste such atmosphere from this close and personal." Kakeru replied.

"The guys who make it on more away matches than I do deserve the credit. They are the best supporters in the country for a good reason." Noriko said.

"So, Kakeru, you like what you see for your first time with the away support?" Sarah asked.

"I really like it. Thanks. To attend a match and to sing along with the crowd English style, it's something I wish I did earlier during my time at this club."

"Well, here is your chance to start developing a new skill... the art of supporting." Sarah said.

"I will try." Kakeru replied before she turned to Noriko. "Nana's starting on the bench. How do you feel about that?"

"Not surprised. She gave so much against Southampton, so I'm fine with her getting the rest for now." Noriko replied.

"I just hope we won't have to ask too much from her today if she needs to play. Going to Newcastle next week will everything but easy." Kakeru said.

"I agree with you. However, let's beat Aston Villa first." Noriko replied.

"By the way, Nana told me that you insisted to be here. Why is that?" Nana asked.

"When it comes to the FA Cup, Villa Park is almost like United's second home. We played so many matches here in the FA Cup, including several semi-finals." Noriko replied.

"That many?"

"For sure, Kakeru. I watched FA Cup games on TV when United won on this ground in 1999, 2002, twice in 2004, then 2007, and 2008. Before I started watching soccer, my grandfather and my father saw United win FA Cup matches here in 1983, 1995, and 1996. Whenever there's a match involving United in this stadium, you just cannot forget the history."

"Well, I hope the team will add to that great history here once again today." Kakeru finished.

Minutes later, Andrew addressed to his players in the Manchester United dressing room:

"Well, for those of you who may not already know it yet, the FA is not just another cup. It's one of the best and toughest cup tournaments in the world. Those among us who spent more years in England will tell you that every FA Cup game is a battle. Aston Villa will try to give their fans a result, but we have a strong team. I know you can get the job done anytime. I want to see drive and commitment, but I also want to see discipline out there. It's all in your hands. Now go out there and push us into the next round."

The Manchester United players then gave a round of applause. On the sound of the bell, the players got up on their feet, and walked out of the dressing room.

"Let's go, lads!" Ashley shouted.

"Come on!" Ander added to the shouts.

"Let's do this!" Nana shouted as well.

When the clock hit 5:25 PM, both teams walked out of the tunnel and onto the pitch. The Manchester United field players wore light pink shirts, black shorts, and light pink socks for this match. Meanwhile, the Aston Villa field players proudly wore their well-known claret shirts with sky blue sleeves, white shorts with a claret and blue trim, and sky blue socks with claret and white trim. The "Villans", as they are known, were the first club of many in England to adopt the claret and sky blue colors.

For this FA Cup fixture, Guy Mowbray is your commentator.

Guy Mowbray: The United team shows 10 changes from the side that started on Tuesday against Southampton. Alexis Sánchez is the only player to keep his starting spot. Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf start at the back. Ashley Young will lead his team with the captain's armband today. Ander Herrera is the senior in a midfield 3 alongside Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay. Jesse Lingard and Romelu Lukaku, who scored the goals against Southampton as substitutes, are rewarded with the start up front alongside Alexis Sánchez.

Considering that several key players took part, Andrew decided to field the following starting XI in a 4-3-3 formation: Sergio Romero (goalkeeper), Diogo Dalot (right-back), Eric Bailly (centre-back), Victor Lindelöf (centre-back), Ashley Young (left-back and acting captain), Ander Herrera (central midfielder), Scott McTominay (central midfielder), Andreas Pereira (central midfielder), Jesse Lingard (right forward), Romelu Lukaku (striker), and Alexis Sánchez (left forward). On the bench, United had the likes of Nana, Pog, Matthias, and Anthony ready to come on should the match not go according to plan. Nevertheless, Andrew also included, among his substitutes, 2 teenagers who looked poised to make their senior debut should an opportunity arise.

On the other hand, Aston Villa put forward the following starting 4-3-3 setup: Lovre Kalinić (goalkeeper), James Bree (right-back), Tommy Elphick (centre-back), James Chester (centre-back and captain), Neil Taylor (left-back), John McGinn (central midfielder), Conor Hourihane (central midfielder), Birkir Bjarnason (central midfield), Albert Adomah (right forward), Tammy Abraham (striker), Yannick Bolasie (left forward). Tammy Abraham, who played the Community Shield match for Chelsea, was playing on loan from Chelsea to Aston Villa. However, Axel Tuanzebe, who was loaned to Aston Villa from United, was not allowed to play according to the FA's rules stating that a player on loan cannot play against his parent club in any competition.

The match started a little slowly as neither side wanted to overcommit itself too early. Although United held the ball for most of the time, the Villans were also capable of taking the action inside the attacking half. The first serious scoring chance didn't come before the first quarter of an hour was gone. But when that happened, United used their quick passes to good effect.

In the 17th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Neil Taylor... can't quite reach Bolasie. Now Lindelöf…

After an interception, Victor ran forward with the ball until he arrived at the level of the center circle. Then the Swedish defender launched the ball forward to Romelu, who then flicked the ball backwards for Andreas, who also launched the ball forward to Ander in a series of one-touch passes.

Guy Mowbray: Lukaku... back for Pereira... Here's Ander Herrera...

Spotting Alexis making a run nearby, Ander laid the ball off for the Chilean forward. With Ander, Romelu, and Jesse luring the Aston Villa defenders out of position, Alexis saw the opportunity to take a lobed shot.

Guy Mowbray: ...drops it for Alexis Sánchez. He will take a shot HERE!

The Aston Villa goalkeeper, not knowing where the shot would go, jumped with his arms stretched. Unfortunately for United, the ball curled just over the crossbar. The Aston Villa fans jeered at the miss, but only timidly as they know the shot wasn't too far away from the target.

Guy Mowbray: That wasn't too far away. It was good football from Manchester United.

On the Manchester United bench, everyone got up on their feet only to fall back into their chairs in disbelief.

"How close was that?" Nana shouted out loud.

"We couldn't ask for a better counterattack run until that shot." Pog replied.

"Yeah, it wasn't far away by Niño. Everyone was on the move just like we did in training." Matthias added.

"We must hope that miss won't bite back at us." Nana said.

Although there was a difference in quality between both sides, the Aston Villa players knew that they had to be more active on the attack. With the strong support from the home crowd, the Villans looked to draw first blood while also attempting to avoid getting scored on.

In the 20th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Bjarnason... dispossessed by Herrera.

A slight hesitation by Bjarnason in the middle of the park allowed Ander to poke the ball away from him. Then the Spanish midfielder saw Romelu running forward before the ball was launched into that direction.

Guy Mowbray: He has released Lukaku, who has to get the best out of James Chester.

On the run towards the Aston Villa penalty area, Romelu tried to find a way past James Chester. The Belgian was trying to power his way through, but the Aston Villa captain made sure to keep his opponent at a harmless position as much as he could. When Romelu arrived inside the penalty area, he first feinted going right before he went onto his left foot. However, that split second allowed more Aston Villa defenders to come back in support, and forced Romelu to take the shot on goal.

Guy Mowbray: Lukaku goes for goal himself... and Kalinić produces a good save.

The Aston Villa goalkeeper blocked the shot before the rebound went back towards an Aston Villa player. After a few passes within their own half, the Aston Villa players attempted a quick counterattack.

Guy Mowbray: Here's McGinn... towards Tammy Abraham...

When the pass rolled towards Tammy Abraham arriving on the halfway line from the opposite direction, the English striker flicked the ball into the run of a teammate. At that moment, a couple of Aston Villa layers were beating the offside line with speedy runs.

Guy Mowbray: And he sets Adomah on the way. Bolasie is in the middle...

After a run on 10 yards, Adomah immediately squared the pass into the run of his teammate, Yannick Bolasie. The Congolese winger was running all alone towards the Manchester United crowd, under the expecting roars of the crowd.

Guy Mowbray: He's onside! Bolasie with a great chance to open the score.

Sergio rushed his way forward to challenge the incoming Aston Villa player. Slightly put off guard by the rush, Bolasie attempted to run around the Argentine goalkeeper instead of taking a shot away. Having not committed himself yet, Sergio followed the Aston Villa winger and thus pushed him deeper towards the byline. The result was a quick narrowing of the shooting angle.

Guy Mowbray: He's going wide around Romero...

With the angle closed down, Bolasie attempted a desperate shot. However, Sergio deflected the ball out of play to concede a corner kick, much to the disbelief of the tens of thousands of Aston Villa supporters in the crowd.

Guy Mowbray: Too wide in the end, and Romero has denied Bolasie on a great chance.

Meanwhile in the away supporters' end:

"Now that was dangerous." Kakeru said.

"Aye. They can really attack well, and we almost got caught asleep right there." Sarah replied.

"The fact that Lukaku's shot was stopped, I have no problem with that. But the back line took a risk by going way so high. Good thing that Sergio Romero held his ground well." Noriko added.

"That really is Sergio. He will stand his ground, and he will rarely make the first move. Even if you think he's beaten, he will keep fighting." Kakeru said.

"Yep. Good thing we have him as a very capable backup goalkeeper. There's not much to complain about him." Noriko replied.

"I guess we have to be more careful out there." Kakeru finished.

After that last scoring opportunity, the following corner kick was easily caught by Sergio. From that moment onward, attacking threats to either goal came few and far between for both sides. The following great opportunity to break the deadlock came for the visitors.

In the 29th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Here's Alexis Sánchez. Lukaku and Lingard waiting in the middle...

With the action moving on the left side, Alexis played the give-and-go with Andreas. The Chilean then ran with the ball down the flank until he stopped his run a short distance from the Aston Villa penalty area. After a wait of a few seconds to see teammates moving into attacking positions, Alexis crossed the ball towards Andreas.

Guy Mowbray: Pereira arriving...

The ball was arriving in a position where Andreas had to flick the ball away before the Aston Villa defender does. By doing so, Andreas pushed the ball towards his right and in a good position for Jesse to take.

Guy Mowbray: In goes Lingard...

Jesse attempted to push through the gap with the ball, but was then tripped by the Aston Villa defender. Romelu instinctively fired the loose ball past the goalkeeper, but the linesman waved the flag up for offside.

Guy Mowbray: Now it's Lukaku! But the flag is up.

Romelu started celebrating the goal before he realized that the play has been called off, much to the mocking jeers from the Aston Villa fans. However, what Romelu didn't know is that his teammates were appealing for something else.

"I was taken down!" Jesse complained.

"That was a foul!" Alexis pleaded.

"This has to be a penalty. What is going on?" Ashley, being the acting captain, inquired about the situation.

"Calm down. The VAR will take a look, so just stay away for now." the referee replied.

In fact, the referee was referring to the video assistant referee (VAR). It was implemented in FA Cup matches, but not yet in the Premier League. In that situation, the referee on the pitch was in communication with the video referee through his microphone. What was first deemed a disallowed goal for offside has become something more contentious to sort out.

Meanwhile in the away supporters' end:

"Did you see what happened there?" Sarah asked.

"I'm not sure, but it looks like Jesse was fouled before Romelu took the shot." Kakeru replied.

"Lukaku was offside, no doubt. That is unmissable from the linesman, I also think it has to do with Lingard and the defender."

"What did you see, Nana?" Kakeru asked out loud.

At the same time on the Manchester United bench, the players were loudly demanding a penalty as they had a better position to see the incident.

"It has to be a penalty! I saw it from here." Nana said.

"Yeah, I saw it too." Pog replied.

"I think we might have it. They wouldn't take so long if it was not legit." Matthias said.

Guy Mowbray: There's the challenge by Neil Taylor on Jesse Lingard. That's the video assistant referee is looking at, and his recommendation will go to the referee on the pitch.

The referee was listening to the VAR. Every second that went by without a decision was adding to the tension.

"So you say this is the call? Are you absolutely sure about it?" the referee asked.

"That's right. You can call it." The VAR replied.

"Thank you."

The referee finally blew his whistle before he pointed towards the penalty spot, much to the disbelief of the Aston Villa supporters in the attendance.

Guy Mowbray: And he has given a penalty to Manchester United!

The Manchester United players, coaches, and supporters cheered in unison when the decision was given. However, the question was about who would take the shot since the regular penalty takers, Kakeru and Pog, were not on the pitch. After a discussion between the players, it was decided that Jesse would take the shot.

Guy Mowbray: With Paul Pogba and Kakeru Aizawa not playing at this moment, it's up to Jesse Lingard to take this penalty.

The referee made sure that no one except Jesse and the goalkeeper Kalinić would stand in the box. When everyone was set and ready, the referee ordered to proceed.


Guy Mowbray: It's Jesse Lingard against Kalinić...

Jesse ran towards the ball in full speed. The goalkeeper expected the shot to go to his right considering the speed of the run, but Jesse fired the ball with aplomb into the top corner to the goalkeeper's left.

Guy Mowbray: Never looked like missing, and Manchester United have the 1-0 lead. Lingard sent Kalinić the wrong way.

Jesse celebrated his goal with his signature Milly Rock dance before he was joined by his ecstatic teammates.

In the away supporters' end, it was wild euphoria:

"YES! COME ON, UNITED!!!" Noriko shouted.

"GREAT SHOT, LINGARD!" Sarah added.

"That was a great shot. He has shown some of those in training before." Kakeru replied as he applauded the goal.

"I hope the floodgates are open now. We really needed that goal." Noriko said.

Meanwhile on the Manchester United bench:

"Well done, Jess!" Nana exclaimed.

"Great shot, man!" Pog added.

"If we can keep playing without conceding, we'd be in a good position for the second half." Matthias said.

"Villa will be forced to open the play. All we have to do is to hit them on the counterattack if any." Nana replied.

However, the Aston Villa team was far from being an easy prey. All they needed to do was to earn a corner kick or a free kick to use their strengths on the attack. Before United could get another chance at goal, the locals were starting to build up some momentum.

In the 34th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Foul by Andreas Pereira. Free kick to Aston Villa.

Andreas tripped an Aston Villa midfielder, and was then given a verbal warning by the referee. However, the main problem for the Red Devils was that the location of the free kick was just within their own defensive third of the pitch. The Villans decided to attempt a long free kick with lots of players attacking the Manchester United penalty area.


The free kick was taken from distance, and the ball first reached an Aston Villa player who attempted to head the ball towards goal. Andreas then blocked the ball, but an unfortunate bounce went off another Villa player. Suddenly, the ball was loose... for James Chester to shoot.

Guy Mowbray: Blocked by Pereira... Only as far as JAMES CHESTER! ASTON VILLA EQUALIZE!!! Manchester United's lead lasted only 5 minutes, and it's the captain who scores the goal. It's 1-1.

Villa Park erupted as the locals saw their team come back on the scoreboard. The Villa fans started to believe that an upset could be possible. Meanwhile among the Manchester United players and supporters alike, it was disbelief that reigned.

"Damn! What was that?" Noriko asked out loud.

"An unlucky bounce in a scramble. Because of that, it was easy for them to score." Sarah replied.

"The lads will need to stay calm now. If we need to, then slowing the game would not be a bad idea." Kakeru said.

"Yeah. I wouldn't be surprised if Butler asks a few substitutes to start warming up soon. That might play a few mind games against Villa with the firepower we have on the bench." Noriko replied.

Meanwhile on the Manchester United bench:

"Man, that really sucks." Nana said out loud.

"I thought Andreas would clear that ball too. Last thing we needed was such an easy ball for them." Matthias replied. "We need to stay calm now."

"I know, Matthias. But more important is that we need to score the next goal." Nana replied.

At that moment, Andrew said something to Michael in the technical area. Seconds later, Michael walked towards the Manchester United substitutes.

"Nana, you go warming up." Michael called her to start warming up a little.

Without further due, Nana left the bench, and made her way by the touchlines. Despite a few taunts from Aston Villa supporters, Nana was not fazed as she started stretching. Meanwhile, Nana's presence at the side of the playing surface was spotted by Kakeru.

"Nana is starting to warm up." Kakeru said.

"She's the first to warm up, so it must be a good sign for her." Sarah added.

"I hope she will get the nod later on." Noriko said.

"I would also put her in first as well. I know some people want to see Pogba, but he played more minutes than Nana did recently." Kakeru replied.

"We will see how this pans out." Sarah finished.

After the equalizing goal, the rest of the first half was a stalemate with both sides barely exchanging shots that were not dangerous for the goalkeepers. The happier side certainly was Aston Villa as the home side and their supporters started to believe they could accomplish a major upset. With the scoreline standing at 1-1, the main talking point among Manchester United supporters was about how vulnerable the midfield and the defence. The supporters from Manchester were expecting to see at least one between Nana and Pog to make a cameo, but they were also hoping their team to avoid going behind.

After Andrew gave his players a halftime team talk in which he asked his players to put more pressure against their opponents, Nana and the other substitutes made their way onto the pitch to warm themselves up with various exercises, passes, and a few shots on goal during what was left of halftime. In the stands, Kakeru and her friends had their eyes towards Nana.

"Nana has been warming up before halftime, and she keeps on going now. When do you think she will come on?" Noriko asked in Japanese.

"So far, it's up for interpretation. She may stop warming up at the very beginning of the second half, but I wouldn't be surprised if she comes just after the hour mark." Kakeru replied.

"If we don't look like scoring the next goal, I can see Butler try to add the creative spark in midfield." Sarah said.

"I wouldn't be surprised if she replaces Andreas Pereira. I see him as the weakest link in midfield, unfortunately." Noriko said.

"It's tough for him overall. That is his first start in a long time too." Kakeru finished.

The second half started with both teams trying to find the right pace. As Andrew ordered his men earlier, United took the action deep in Aston Villa's half of the pitch for most of the time. However, Aston Villa were looking to push back as much as possible. All it took to score a goal was one single mistake from either side.

In the 55th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Young... back to Lindelöf... now to Pereira...

The Manchester United players were passing the ball at the back while the Aston Villa players were pressing high up the field. When Victor passed the ball slight ahead and towards Andreas in the middle, the Brazilian midfielder was quickly pressed by 2 Aston Villa players. Dithering with the ball for one second too many, Andreas slipped on the ground, leaving the ball in a dangerous position as the Villans suddenly found themselves in a 2v1 situation.

Guy Mowbray: Pereira dispossessed! Hourihane...

Just as Conor Hourihane arrived just outside of the Manchester United penalty area, the Irish midfielder made a short pass ahead and into the path of Tammy Abraham. Eric tried to rush back and stop the shot, but Tammy Abraham blasted the shot into the back of the net. Suddenly, Villa Park erupted on a dramatic turn of events.

Guy Mowbray: Abraham! IT'S IN!!! Tammy Abraham, the man on loan from Chelsea, has scored the goal that puts Aston Villa in the lead! But it was a terrible effort from Andreas Pereira that created this situation.

The vast majority inside Villa Park was genuinely believing in an upcoming moment of giant-killing. While some Manchester United players and most of the away supporters were standing silent with worried faces, Andrew decided not to wait any longer before sending his ace into battle soon.

"Mishima, warm up a little more. You're next to come on." Andrew ordered.

"Yes, Boss!" Nana replied.

For a few minutes, United looked rattled by the Aston Villa go-ahead goal. However, the Villans did not attack with much conviction during that time. The local side appeared to have set themselves up to sit and defend the lead. When the clock hit the 63rd minute, Nana went on to take her jacket and her training pants off. Before Nana was set to go, she was given a few more instructions by Andrew.

"I want to you to find even the smallest gap in their defense, and then thread into the eye of the needle. I know you can do it." Andrew said.

"I'll find the gaps." Nana replied.

"And if you find space to get on the attack, make a run in there. Get in behind them. Ready?" Andrew said.

"Just another day at the office." Nana simply replied.

Guy Mowbray: Well, Andrew Butler has decided to send Nana Mishima into the action. She will replace Andreas Pereira with the intent of providing some flair in the Manchester United midfield.

The Japanese midfielder immediately ran towards her assigned position.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"GANBARE, SEVEN!!!" Kakeru shouted.

"It's about time. Nana can't do worse than Andreas." Noriko said.

"Certainly not." Sarah replied. "I hope she can make a difference. Aston Villa are just sitting back right now."

"I have a good feeling that she will." Noriko replied.

"Knocking on wood." Kakeru said.

After Nana arrived on the pitch, United moved the action into the Aston Villa half and started laying the siege against the Villan fortress. The locals attempted to keep a strong, compact, and intense defense against their opponents' attacks, but they did know what surprises the Little Witch had in her bag.

In the 65th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Here's Mishima. She lays it off to Herrera...

At first, Nana tried to run forward with the ball towards the final third of the pitch. However, the presence of an Aston Villa player in front of her forced a change of plans. As such, Nana made a side pass towards Ander before she ran off deeper into the Aston Villa half to support attacking numbers. The Spanish midfielder then waited to see passing options to get free. Finally, Ander launched a long pass towards Alexis, several yards ahead and to the left.

Guy Mowbray: Good long ball into Sánchez...

Alexis received the pass, but he was still at least 12 yards away from the Aston Villa penalty area. The Chilean forward cut his run across and towards the middle of the witdh, waiting to see a teammate make a run behind the Aston Villa defenders.

"Niño!" Nana shouted.

Nana saw a gap between the Aston Villa, and thus she started a quick run. Having seen the Little Witch in a perfect position to enter the penalty area from an easily onside position, Alexis launched a perfect through pass to her.

Guy Mowbray: That's a great pass for MISHIMAAA...

With a quick shot from the inside of her left foot, Nana put the ball beyond the reach of the Aston Villa goalkeeper and into the back of the net.

Guy Mowbray: UNITED LEVEL!! Nana Mishima just came on a couple of minutes ago, and she has got her way through the Aston Villa defense to make it Aston Villa 2-2 Manchester United. Villa's lead has lasted only 10 minutes.

Immediately after the goal, Nana claimed the ball before she took it towards the center circle.

"Good goal, Witch!" Romelu congratulated Nana.

"Thanks, Big Rom. Let's go for the next goal now."

"Let's go!" Ander replied.

Meanwhile in the away supporters' end, it was jubilation.

"GREAT GOAL, SEVEN!!!" Kakeru shouted.

"GREAT RUN!!!" Noriko added.

"That was a clever run in the area by Nana." Sarah said.

"Nana really knows how to make herself go unnoticed for a split second. That's all she needed to get in the right place." Noriko replied.

"Let's hope this has deflated Aston Villa, and also boost us for what's coming next." Kakeru said.

"I'm sure she's just getting started." Noriko finished.

After the 2-2 goal, United continued to pin the Aston Villa players down in their own half. Again the Villans worked as hard as they could to keep their hopes alive, but it was becoming increasingly difficult against a Manchester United side that was reinvigorated by the return of one of its most dangerous players. Before everyone knew it, Nana had another magic trick up in her sleeve.

In the 68th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Lindelöf… Bailly...

From inside his own half, Eric attempted to launch a long aerial pass across the halfway line and forward to Romelu. The big Belgian chose to head the ball sideways for Jesse, who then made a drop pass to Nana.

Guy Mowbray: Mishima...

Seeing Romelu on the shoulders of the last Aston Villa defender, Nana launched a cheeky chip pass ahead. Romelu ran after the ball while the Aston Villa defenders had their hands raised to demand an offside call.

Guy Mowbray: Through for Lukaku. Is this the moment?

Romelu was in fact onside, and then he ran with the ball around the Aston Villa goalkeeper. When the angle was right, Romelu tapped the ball into a wide open goal. The outcome left all of Villa Park stunned and silent but for the 5,900+ people associated with Manchester United.

Guy Mowbray: Lukaku finds the net! United are back in front! Talk about an immediate impact, Nana Mishima has scored one goal and has assisted on the other with the last 5 minutes of play. Aston Villa 2-3 Manchester United!

Meanwhile in the away supporters' stand:

"YEAH, WE'RE LEADING! COME ON!" Sarah exclaimed.

"WELL DONE, BIG ROM!!" Kakeru shouted.

"GREAT PASS, NANA!" Noriko added.

"She carved Villa wide open as if they were nothing. They looked like impenetrable just a few minutes ago." Sarah said.

"Yeah. She just knew where Lukaku was. All she had to do was to quickly find the when and the how." Noriko replied.

"That's vintage Nana. She always showed the ability to find someone in the open, and then try something that leaves you in disbelief." Kakeru said.

"I really wonder what the strategy will be now." Noriko said.

"Just keep on attacking, I say." Kakeru finished.

With Manchester United back in the driver's seat, the Aston Villa players started pushing forward in an attempt to get back on terms on the scoreboard. But when United regained control of the ball, the Red Devils were looking to show their full ruthlessness towards the team in claret shirts.

In the 74th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Bree... looking to find El-Ghazi on the left.

The Aston Villa players were looking to use the long balls in an attempt to attack the Manchester United backline. However, the pass from James Bree went too far ahead, so much that Jesse recovered the loose ball. The English forward was dropping down the field to support the Manchester United defenders.

Guy Mowbray: Lingard... finds Herrera.

Jesse passed the ball ahead to Ander, who then had to cope with some pressure from an Aston Villa defender. Nevertheless, Ander successfully passed the ball towards Alexis in the center circle. At that moment, Nana was making a run to Alexis' left while Romelu was in a position to run on the right channel. The Chilean finally chose to launch the ball for Romelu to run after.

Guy Mowbray: Alexis Sánchez... Oh, what a ball for Lukaku.

Arriving on the edge of the Aston Villa penalty area, Romelu came face-to-face with the Aston Villa left-back. After a couple of feints intended to create enough space for himself, Romelu crossed the ball towards the far post. Again, the Aston Villa defenders didn't track Nana's movement.

Guy Mowbray: Mishima at the back post!

Without any hesitation, Nana headed the ball into the back of the Aston Villa goal with a diving header to giver her team the 2-goal cushion they were looking for.

Guy Mowbray: Magnificent goal! It's two for Nana Mishima, it's four for Manchester United. She has made an everlasting mark on this FA Cup 3rd round tie by having her word on all of her team's 3 unanswered goals.

In the ensuing celebration, Nana ran towards the nearby away supporters' area before she was mobbed by her teammates. Everyone wearing pink shirts on the pitch also celebrated in front of their faithful away support group.

"You did it!" Alexis ruffled Nana's hair.

"Great goal, Witch! Way to go!" Romelu congratulated Nana with a big hug.

"Thanks guys!" Nana replied.

"That's a big goal! Well done." Ander also congratulated Nana.

After the players stopped celebrating, Nana took his gaze towards Kakeru's location in the stands, pointed towards her, and then made a heart-shaped hand gesture. In return, Kakeru waved towards Nana from the stands with a big smile.

"WAY TO GO, SEVEN!!!" Kakeru shouted.

"NICE GOAL, NANA!" Noriko added.

"Two goals and an assist already! From 1-2 to 4-2, she really made a massive difference!" Sarah said.

"I told you she would make a difference." Noriko replied.

"I look at the Aston Villa players right now; they are crushed. Their captain even kicked the ball out of frustration after the goal." Kakeru said.

"Yeah, that doesn't look good for them. But it's all good for us." Noriko replied.

"You think Nana can go for the hat-trick?" Sarah asked.

"We will see. We have 16 minutes and stoppages to find out, but that would be phenomenal if she does." Noriko finished.

From that point forward in time, the intensity in the match inevitably dropped. The Aston Villa made a couple of substitutions hoping to find a spark somewhere. However, Andrew replaced Alexis and Jesse with Anthony and one of the 2 young Manchester United rookies at their respective positions. With a 2-goal margin against a deflated opposition, Andrew had the luxury to send the rookie into action. For several minutes, there was no dangerous action from either side.

In the 86th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Bjarnason... finds Taylor on the left.

Aston Villa were putting up some sustained attacking pressure inside the Manchester United half for a rare occasion since United scored 3 unanswered goals. Icelandic midfielder Birkir Bjarnason passed the ball to his teammate at left-back, Neil Taylor. After running a few yards further, Taylor crossed a hopeful aerial ball inside the Manchester United penalty area. Eric appeared to be in a good position to head the ball away, but the ball dipped just above his head. As a result, the ball landed to the feet of Aston Villa striker Tammy Abraham...

Guy Mowbray: Oh, missed by Bailly! Tammy Abraham!

Tammy Abraham took the shot from point blank, but Sergio Romero stopped the shot. The following rebound then bounced high before Scott McTominay and another Aston Villa player tried to play the ball.

Guy Mowbray: Stopped by Romero! It's not over yet!

The loose ball then bounced just outside of the Manchester United penalty area, where Conor Hourihane tried his luck with a hard and low drive towards the goal.

Guy Mowbray: Hourihane goes in!

The ball was blocked by Sergio again, but the rebound went out of control and into a dangerous area in front of goal.

Guy Mowbray: Romero again...

Tammy Abraham jumped on the rebound by heading the ball into the Manchester United goal. At that moment, everyone thought Aston Villa had reignited their homes. However, the linesman pulled his flag up.

Guy Mowbray: ABARAHAM SCORES!! Aston Villa are back in it... No! The flag is up. Tammy Abraham was offside.

As TV replays showed the incident, the Aston Villa player was coming back from an offside position when the shot was taken. As a result, the goal didn't count, much to the dismay of the home supporters.

In the away supporters' end:

"That was a close one." Kakeru said.

"The last thing we needed something that gives Villa a boost with a little more than 4 minutes and stoppages left to play." Noriko replied.

"We just need to play the boring game to snuff them out. I'm sure that is what the Boss is shouting on the touchline right now." Kakeru finished.

After that unsuccessful last hurrah from Aston Villa, United retained control of the ball for most of what was left of the match. As for Nana, she was still looking for one opportunity to complete her first senior hat-trick. In the late stages of the match, the Little WItch had an one final opportunity.

In the 89th minute:

Guy Mowbray: Martial... Things could get uglier for Aston Villa before the final whistle.

Anthony ran forward with the ball for several yards on the left flank until he arrived just inside the Aston Villa penalty area. But with 2 Aston Villa defenders standing in the way, the French forward made a short side pass towards Nana inside the penalty area.

Guy Mowbray: Here's Mishima...

Nana was getting quickly rushed on by 3 Aston Villa, but she wasn't shy in making a couple of quick dribbles before she laid the ball behind her and just outside the penalty area. There, Ander was ready to strike the ball in his stride.

Guy Mowbray: Mishima tees up HERRERA!

Ander took the shot immediately. The Aston Villa goalkeeper got just a few fingertips on the ball, but it was enough to deflect it on the outside of the post. Unfortunately for the goalkeeper, the bound was bouncing back into a dangerous area. Nana only had to tap the ball in a yawning cage.

Guy Mowbray: Off the post! Mishima tucks it home!

Nana thought she scored a hat-trick, but the celebrations quickly turned quiet when she saw the linesman with the flag up.

Guy Mowbray: No, it's offside. It won't count for Mishima.

The TV replay showed that Nana was running forward a split second after she laid the ball off for Ander while the entire Aston Villa defensive line moved up quickly. As a result, Nana was just an inch offside by the time Ander took his shot. The Little Witch could only have a sarcastic laugh.

Guy Mowbray: Ander Herrera was just a matter of a few centimeters away from scoring United's 5th goal. What a good save that was in the circumstances before the ball bounced off the inside of the post and back to Mishima!

Meanwhile in the stands:

"Dang! That's a big shame!" Kakeru exclaimed.

"I really thought Nana scored a legit goal on that." Sarah said.

"I thought the same, but Nana probably got a little too excited in her run. That's why the linesman spotted an offside." Noriko replied.

"The referee is not showing any sign of a doubt, and the VAR is not calling anything. So I guess he's right, but it was definitely tight in real time." Kakeru said.

"Even if she doesn't score a hat-trick, no one can take away her performance since she came on. She is my Player of the Match if anything." Noriko replied.

"I agree. She has done more than enough for today." Sarah finished.

Even without scoring a third goal, Nana's contribution made a world of difference. Since the 4-2 goal, the Manchester United players finished the game off without any further fuss. The final whistle finally sounded the end of the agony for the home side.


The contingent of 5,900+ Manchester United supporters cheered at the final whistle while the remaining Aston Villa supporters remained silent. A big portion of the Aston Villa supporters had already left the stadium when it was clear that there would be no other outcome than a Manchester United victory.

After the handshakes and a brief post-match celebration with the away supporters, the Manchester United players left the pitch. As for Kakeru, his time in the stands came to an end. He was about to be accompanied by Manchester United officials on the way to meet up with his teammates.

"So, are you joining Nana and the others now?" Noriko asked.

"Yep. I'll perhaps see you later in Manchester if you're not asleep yet." Kakeru replied.

"That's right. It's almost a 2-hour ride from here to Manchester." Noriko said. "Enjoy the ride home with your teammates."

"See you soon, Kakeru." Sarah said goodbye for now.

"Sure. See you later, girls." Kakeru replied.

After that, Kakeru left on his way to join his teammates. Around 8:05 PM, a refreshed Nana came to meet up with Kakeru by the bus.

"Over here!" Kakeru called Nana over.

"Come here, Kakeru." Nana greeted Kakeru with a kiss.

"Two goals and an assist... You were fantastic, Seven." Kakeru said.

"Thanks. I'm glad I could help the team entering the next round." Nana replied.

"No need to be modest, Seven. You really nailed them, and we had a blast in the stands."

"Well, I'm really happy you enjoyed the game in the stands. Thinking about your return?" Nana asked.

"I really can't wait to make my return soon. I just want to be at the end of your through passes again." Kakeru replied.

"It will come very soon." Nana replied.

"Let's hop on the bus." Kakeru said.

"I'm right behind you, Kakeru."

Kakeru and Nana then got on the bus. When both Japanese players got to their seats, Kakeru took his smartphone out of his pocket to watch a video. The content of the video raised Nana's curiosity.

"What are you watching?" Nana asked.

"Do you remember with whom Noriko's grandfather compared me to back on Christmas?" Kakeru returned the question.

"He said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer."

"I didn't know until recently, but the club's official YouTube account put up a compilation of his goals back in October." Kakeru said.

"Let's watch this." Nana replied.

Kakeru and Nana watched the video. Both were in awe at how the former Norwegian striker made most of his goals look so easy.

"Harry was right. Solskjaer really was that good." Kakeru said.

"He scored goals in almost every single way imaginable. Right foot, left foot, header, volley, you name it." Nana replied.

"If I can work my way to model my game after his and become as effective as he was, nothing would stop us."

"I would be happy to feed you with passes. Then you make sure to be ruthless when you have to."

"I definitely will, Seven. Don't worry." Kakeru finished with a smile.

Minutes later, the Manchester United team bus started the ride back towards Manchester. With the 3rd round of the FA Cup put in the past with a sweet taste to enjoy, the focus was shifted back towards the Premier League. For Kakeru, his primary objective was to become fit enough to play some competitive minutes before the next Premier League match.

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