The Italian Job - Part 1 :Previous Chapter«Home Page»Next Chapter: SheBelieves Cup Final

The Best Fixture in the Land

For players and supporters of both Liverpool and Manchester United, any confrontation between the 2 sides is a day to circle on the calendar. In that inter-city rivalry, players admit that they would always prefer to play at home and that they need to create an atmosphere for the fans. Having already won against Liverpool in the Premier League at Anfield and in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, United were looking to complete the sweep in the Premier League fixture at Old Trafford. However, they would have to do it without Nana, who was on international duty for Nadeshiko Japan. Regardless, the table was set for another thriller between the best enemies of England.

Saturday March 3

The Bishop Blaize, Manchester, UK

10:29 AM GMT

Kickoff was scheduled for 12:30 PM, but the streets in the neighborhood surrounding Old Trafford was already swarmed by thousands of people buying meals, drinks, scarves, and other stuff before the match. At the pub known as the Bishop Blaize, several United supporters already had a beer or two as superfan Pete Boyle was standing at the bar to lead the nearly nonstop singing. However, Noriko and Sarah did not need a beer to get into the buildup among their fellow United supporters. The two women, dressed with their Manchester United shirts on, were put their voices into the songs.

Gary Neville is a red,
Is a red, is a red,
Gary Neville is a red,
He hates Scousers!

"No matter how many times that song pops up, that fits right with the mood." Noriko said.

"That's for sure. Can't think of many players who wore their hearts in their sleeves as Gary did in his days." Sarah replied.

"But I wish Nana had her own song for that goal against Liverpool in the FA Cup alone."

"You never know though." Sarah said.

After the Gary Neville song ended, Pete Boyle took a moment to ask his fellow Manchester United supporters to quiet down so he can talk.

"Alright, lads. Since we face Liverpool today, we have a little thought for our Little Witch. She won't play today because she's in America with her national team, but we haven't forgotten the last time she played against the Scousers. Yeah?" Pete said.

"Yeah!" the Manchester United supporters replied.

"Follow me as I sing. You know the song, lads." Pete said.

Who put the ball in the Scousers' net?
Who put the ball in the Scousers' net?
Who put the ball in the Scousers' net?
Nana "Witch" Mishima!

The Manchester United supporters then continued singing that stanza a few more times. Noriko took the opportunity to record the crowd singing with her smartphone until the supporters moved on with a different song.

"Well, you had your wish fulfilled, Noriko." Sarah said.

"This is great. Nana will love it when she will see what I'm sending her now." Noriko replied just as she sent her video to Nana.

A moment later after the last song ended, the entire crowd inside the Bishop Blaize stood up and cheered as they saw the live TV news feed. The broadcast showed the Manchester United team arriving at Old Trafford.

"UNITED! UNITED UNITED!" the supporters shouted.

"COME ON, LADS!" Noriko shouted.

"I'm really happy that you spared a ticket for me today. I always wanted to attend a match against Liverpool." Sarah said.

"It's always a pleasure. You can also thank my mom for the ticket. She was okay with you attending the match today since you were not with me in the previous 2 matches against Liverpool."

"Those were good matches indeed, Noriko. Let's hope we will have a good match for today... and that we win too."

"I have a feeling that it will be a good one." Noriko said.

"By the way, where is Nana now? Do you know where her national team is spending the night?" Sarah asked.

"She's at the Hilton New York Fashion District in Manhattan."

"I hope she won't oversleep that one. It must be early in the morning over there."

"Trust me, Sarah. She won't miss one bit of it even with a five-hour difference." Noriko finished.

Hilton New York Fashion District, New York City, New York

7:10 AM Eastern Time (12:10 PM GMT)

In New York City, the sun had risen only less than hour ago. With a match in the SheBelieves Cup due on the following day in the New York metropolitan area, Nadeshiko Japan were lodged in a five-star hotel build in one of Manhattan's most sought-after neighborhoods – the Hilton New York Fashion District. At the hotel, the Nadeshiko Japan players could all watch the Manchester United vs. Liverpool match on NBC Sports from the 37-inch flat screen TV in each bedroom. Nevertheless, Nana and Mai Murasaki were joined in their bedroom by long-time teammates Taeko Ishiki, Mina Nakae, Chika Nakamura, and Sakura Otsuki.

"So what do you think about the lineups?" Taeko asked. She and Nana were already wearing their red Manchester United shirts.

"Looks good to me. I can trust Yusuke to do the job, especially if he has to shut down their striker." Nana replied.

"You talk about that self-proclaimed Assassin, right?" Mai asked.

"Yeah, Takumi Emishi. The last time Yusuke faced him, Kamakura High destroyed Yoin Academy 5-0."

"I should call Emishi as ‘Little Big Mouth' instead." Mai said. "He was such an annoying character when I played against him not so long ago. I hope Kakerucchi will kick his butt."

"Mai-chan." Nana said between chuckles.

"We are 6 in this room, but we have a little room for more. Think anyone else might come?" Mina asked Nana.

"I already told everyone that they can watch the game in their rooms, but I wouldn't be against having a couple more people."

Then someone knocked at the door.

"I'll get it." Nana said.

Nana looked through the hotel door peephole, and recognized 2 teammates in Mana Iwabuchi and Kumi Yokoyama. Then Nana opened the door.

"Ohayou (Good morning), you two." Nana greeted.

"We thought we'd come here although we can watch the game in our room." Mana said.

"Do you have room for just us?" Kumi asked.

"Sure, come in." Nana let her teammates come in.

"With 8 of us in this room, we will need plenty of coffee." Taeko said.

"Good thing they have that espresso machine and a good variety of k-cups right here." Nana replied. "What flavours do you want, girls?"

Manchester United vs. Liverpool (Premier League match 29)

Old Trafford, Manchester, UK

12:23 PM GMT

In the players' tunnel, both teams stood ready to walk out. United and Liverpool wore the same kits they wore in the FA Cup fixture back in January. Just as back then, Takumi Emishi started using snarky remarks to try unsettling Kakeru before kickoff even started.

"You must be feeling lonely, Aizawa. Your fiancée is not there today." Takumi said.

Kakeru did not reply, but that silence was not going to stop Takumi at all.

"How do you manage your... needs when she's not there? Do you do it on your own? Or do you find other women to put in your bed?"

Kakeru stood as frosty as he could, but the temptation of picking a fight with Takumi was growing stronger. Fortunately, Matthias and Yusuke broke silence.

"Did you lads hear something?" Matthias asked.

"Looks like a little duck has escaped the farm, and he's, as you guys once said, not feeling dirty nor muddy enough." Yusuke added.

The last remark from Yusuke got a few Manchester United players laughing out loud. Kakeru chuckled when he heard the remark.

"What are you trying to say there?" Takumi asked to Yusuke in Japanese.

"You wouldn't like to know what the slang means, but you are exactly as he says." Kakeru replied.

"You can have a laugh, Aizawa. Today, I will settle the score between us." Takumi said to Kakeru.

"The last time I played against you, Emishi, I put you through the most humiliating day of your playing career. It was just great, and I would be happy to repeat it again today." Yusuke said.

"I'll show you what I'm made of." Takumi retorted.

Then Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson had enough with the chit-chat.

"Emishi... I don't know what you are babbling in Japanese, but you better keep quiet. Stay focused!" Jordan Henderson said.

Takumi went back in line, and said no more after his captain's order. Nevertheless, Yusuke took one more verbal taunt at Takumi.

"Always quacking like a little duck." Yusuke said before he made the quacking duck's sound in Japanese. "Ga... ga... ga."

Then the referee and the linesmen arrived in front of the two teams. At 12:26 PM, the referee ordered both starting lineups to walk out of the tunnel. The substitutes from both teams and the managers followed behind.

"We'll see you out there, Emishi." Yusuke said.

"You will." Takumi dryly replied.

As both teams walked out, Kakeru remembered a quick conversation he heard between José and Yusuke just after the pre-match speech.

Flashback – A few minutes ago

"Yusuke, come here a second." José said.

"Yes, Boss."

"Remember what I told you: I'm putting you up against Emishi because you shut him down like so few have done before. Whatever happens, you stick by him at all times. Even if he goes to the toilet, you follow him."

"I'll get the job done, Boss." Yusuke replied.

"You mess his head up. You do anything you want. I don't want to see him have a shot against us. You can do this, so let's go." José finished.

Present time

'Emishi will taste hell against Yusuke. I can feel it, you big mouth." Kakeru thought.

Inside the stadium, the war of decibels had already started between both sets of supporters long before the players came on. At the very same time the Nadeshiko Japan players were watching the match on NBC Sports, live British commentary of the match was provided as usual by Martin Tyler and Gary Neville.

Martin Tyler: Hi there, everyone. This is a clash between two most decorated clubs in English football once again, but both teams are looking up at different objectives in this season. Manchester United are still fighting a battle to the finish against Arsenal and Manchester City. Liverpool are playing catch-up against the top 3, but they have been red hot as of late.

Then on all broadcasts from all over the world, the starting lineups were shown. For Manchester United, the starters were: David de Gea (goalkeeper), Antonio Valencia (right-back and captain), Eric Bailly (centre-back), Matthias Köhler (centre-back), Ashley Young (left-back), Nemanja Matić (central midfielder), Yusuke Saeki (central midfielder), Paul Pogba (central midfielder), Kakeru Aizawa (right winger), Romelu Lukaku (striker), and Alexis Sánchez (left winger). Kakeru and Alexis were actually given freedom to switch wings at any time.

Martin Tyler: José Mourinho has made 3 changes from last Saturday at Watford, where David de Gea recorded his 12th clean sheet of the Premier League season. Ashley Young is in at left-back and starts next to Matthias Köhler, who scored what proved to be the winning goal against Watford. With Nana Mishima on international duty, Yusuke Saeki comes in midfield alongside Nemanja Matić and Paul Pogba. Supporting Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sánchez and Kakeru Aizawa start on the wings. Aizawa scored one at Anfield in the Premier League and twice in the FA Cup against Liverpool this season.

As for Liverpool, their starting lineup looked as followed: Loris Karius (goalkeeper), Trent Alexander-Arnold (right-back), Joël Matip (centre-back), Virgil van Dijk (centre-back), Andrew Robertson (left-back), James Milner (central midfielder), Jordan Henderson (central midfielder and captain), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (central midfielder), Mohamed Salah (right winger), Takumi Emishi (striker), and Sadio Mané (left winger).

Martin Tyler: Jürgen Klopp made one change to the Liverpool side that defeated West Ham by a score of 5-0 at Anfield last week. Loris Karius starts in goal. Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Van Dijk, and Robertson come into the back 4. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaces Georginio Wijnaldum in midfield. Mo Salah and Sadio Mané will flank Takumi Emishi up front. The Japanese striker is a big reason behind the revival of this Liverpool side after Roberto Firmino was ruled out with a serious knee injury back in December. Incidentally, Firmino is fit enough to start on the bench today.

After the handshakes, players from both teams went to their assigned positions. Kakeru gave Yusuke a good luck hug before the latter walked towards the midfield.

Martin Tyler: Two players from the same prefecture in Japan. Kakeru Aizawa, current leading scorer in the Premier League, starts for the 10th consecutive match in all competitions... and up against one a striker in an incredible form at the moment, Takumi Emishi. It's a very Japanese flavour to a global fixture... and IT'S LIVE!

The coin toss gave United the right to kick the match off. United were set to attack towards the East Stand for the first half while Liverpool would go towards the Stretford End. When the clock hit 12:30 PM, the referee blew his whistle under the roars of a vast majority among the 75,000+ spectators in the attendance. Although United controlled most of the early running with the ball, the Liverpool players applied high pressure on the ball carrier. Nevertheless, both teams looked more like studying the other in the first few minutes before the first serious scoring chance came up.

In the 6th minute:

Martin Tyler: Van Dijk... Matip.

From inside their own half, the 2 Liverpool centre-backs passed the ball between each other. Then Joël Matip passed the ball towards Trent Alexander-Arnold. However, the Liverpool right-back hesitated for a split second when Kakeru rushed towards him. As a result, Alexander-Arnold kicked the ball into Kakeru, who started a counterattack in the opposite direction.

Martin Tyler: Alexander-Arnold hesitated... it's Kakeru Aizawa now.

Kakeru dashed forward with the ball, but Trent Alexander-Arnold caught up with him to deny any access to the Liverpool penalty area. Without any immediate options, Kakeru passed the ball slightly backwards to Pog.

Martin Tyler: Nowhere to go. Pogba...

As the Liverpool defenders and midfielders fell back just inside their own penalty area, Pog noticed some open space in front of the penalty area. In that position, Yusuke was calling for a pass. The French midfielder didn't need an invitation to make the pass.

Martin Tyler: Set up for Saeki...

Yusuke took one touch of the ball to control it first. When the Liverpool players realized their mistake, they tried to close down on Yusuke. The Japanese midfielder unleashed a powerful strike. However, the Liverpool goalkeeper managed to catch the ball despite the pace in the shot.

Martin Tyler: Ooh... Couldn't swirl it enough to trouble Karius.

Gary Neville: Some good pressure from Aizawa allows to start the counterattack. Saeki chose power over technique on that shot, but he's not someone to underestimate from that range. Good concentration by Karius to stop the shot.

"Good try, Yusuke." Kakeru cheered his friend up. Yusuke replied with a thumbs-up sign.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"Too bad about the shot. That attack looked interesting." Harry said.

"He went for power instead of accuracy alright." Robert replied.

"If he added a little swirl, the shot would have been a greater problem for Karius." Noriko said. "Still, they will now think twice about losing the ball carelessly."

"If we stay sharp, we will have more chances coming." Sarah added.

"Just play a simple game. That's all." Noriko finished.

Manchester United's game plan was all about retrieving the ball before the counterattack is launched. For that, discipline and winning the battles in midfield were the key elements. Meanwhile, Liverpool were trying to find ways to crack the Mancunian setup when the former had the ball, but to no avail thus far. The visitors were playing into José's hands as the game continued.

In the 16th minute:

Martin Tyler: Too far for Lukaku. Karius will pick it up.

Yusuke attempted to play a long ball towards the running Romelu. However, the pass went too far ahead and was picked up by Loris Karius. The Liverpool goalkeeper then passed the ball for a defender, who then passed to captain Jordan Henderson. In a series of quick passes, the Liverpool players were moving on the attack. Inside the Manchester United half, Takumi came face-to-face with Yusuke.

Martin Tyler: Now Emishi... he's facing Saeki.

"Come on!" Yusuke challenged Takumi.

"I'll show you!" Takumi eclaimed.

Takumi tried to dribble his way past Yusuke. However, the former Kamakura High School midfielder welcomed him with a solid and clean tackle that sent the former Yoin Academy striker down. Takumi felt he was impeded and made himself heard to the referee. However, the referee was having none of that despite pleas from the Liverpool players.

Martin Tyler: Brought down... Referee says play on...

Yusuke then passed ahead to Pog, who crossed the halfway line on the counterattack. After a good run, Pog made a skillful feint to shake Jordan Henderson a little off. The Frenchman then passed ahead and to his right to Kakeru, who was lurking inside the Liverpool penalty area.

Martin Tyler: Pogba... Here's Aizawa.

Kakeru saw the direct path to goal blocked by Andrew Robertson while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was also moving in to put some defensive pressure on. Instead of trying to beat his marker off, Kakeru chose to made a quick left-footed cross towards the far post. The ball was too high for Romelu, but not for Alexis.

Martin Tyler: Oh, Sánchez! Hit the post...

Alexis threw his body into a diving header only to see his shot hit the post. However, the rebound bounced out of reach of the Liverpool players while Pog was there to strike the ball into a yawning cage. In a flash, Old Trafford erupted as United moved 1-0 up.

Martin Tyler: But Pogba puts it in! A Manchester United breakthrough in the 16th minute, that was unmissable.

"Well done, Pog!" Kakeru congratulated.

"We have the goal now." Romelu added.

Pog was mobbed by most of his teammates. Meanwhile, a few other Manchester United players came to congratulate Alexis first for his effort on goal.

"Great diving header, Alexis." Yusuke said.

"Thanks. Had to try it." Alexis replied.

"There would have been no goal without that. Well played." Matthias said.

Meanwhile in New York:

"Great effort, boys!" Nana exclaimed.

"Well done!" Taeko added.

"Good goal, that." Mai said.

"That was a great effort to make the goal so easy in the end." Chika said.

"Love that diving header from Sánchez. That was a good ball by Aizawa-san too." Kumi said.

"Yeah, but nothing would have been possible without Yusuke's tackle first." Nana replied.

"That's right. Saeki-san waited and waited to see what Emishi would do, and then popped up with the tackle." Mina said.

"Emishi is still reckless when someone challenges him. It can only be good for us." Nana replied.

"It's about doing more of the same against Liverpool from now on." Taeko finished.

Even with an early goal in the bank, United's task was to continue stalling and frustrating their opponents for as long it would take. Although they were surprised by the early goal, the Liverpool players had strong belief in their attacking ability. Scoring chances would eventually come up for the team from Merseyside.

In the 22nd minute:

Martin Tyler: Henderson... Oxlade-Chamberlain...

Liverpool retrieved the ball inside their own half after a battle for possession took place in the middle of the park. Captain Jordan Henderson then made a pass across the halfway line and towards Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who then spotted Takumi starting a run between both Manchester United centre-backs and behind Yusuke.

Martin Tyler: Now Emishi. Salah is on the move...

As Yusuke was torn for a split second between covering the dangerous winger Mohamed Salah and covering Takumi, the Japanese striker made a pass towards his Egyptian teammate. Then with one skillful dribble, Salah bent his run from the outside to the inside. Danger was coming against United.

Martin Tyler: Salah is in here...

At the moment Salah entered the penalty area, Yusuke came in with a solid shoulder-to-shoulder charge from the blind side. As a result, Salah lost control of the ball, allowing David de Gea to rush forward. The Spaniard tried to smother the ball as Salah was forced to jump over him. However, the ball bounced off the Spanish goalkeeper and into a dangerous position as Takumi was lurking around.

Martin Tyler: Emishi coming... Covered by De Gea.

David put both hands on the ball. Takumi jumped to avoid the diving Manchester United goalkeeper. However, David felt that Takumi's studs went a little too close to his head when the near-collision was quite avoidable. The Spaniard was not happy at all.

"HEY! Look at where you're going!" David shouted, holding onto the ball.

"You've got some nerve, you little twerp!" Matthias added.

"I'm sorry. I didn't try anything." Takumi was pleading his innocence.

"Rule number 1: studs off our goalkeeper. The next time you do that, you will get some from me." Yusuke threatened.

"Oh, make me. Make me." Takumi stood in defiance.

"Hey! Just leave him alone." Jordan Henderson came in to pull his teammate away.

"You're lucky, Emishi." Pog also added his grain of salt.

Finally, the confrontation ended with no further incident. However, the tens of thousands Manchester United supporters inside the stadium were not happy with what they just saw. The crowd shouted angry words at both the opposition and the referee.

"He wanted to play dirty there." Sarah remarked.

"Aye! There was plenty of space and time for Emishi to make a full stop. He knew what he was doing." Noriko replied.

"He's lucky that he doesn't play against Roy Keane in his prime. Ol' Irishman would have killed him on the spot." Robert added.

"Now, now. No need to get violent just yet even if that's Liverpool." Harry frowned.

"Yusuke will take care of him. He knows enough tricks to make someone's life miserable out there." Noriko said.

The game continued, and Liverpool were starting to show some controlled possession of the ball. They were still looking for a crack in the armour of the home side, and they would soon have their chance.

In the 26th minute:

Martin Tyler: Free kick to Liverpool.

Liverpool were awarded an indirect free kick deep within the Manchester United half. While most players on both sides moved inside the penalty area, Kakeru moved himself into a one-man wall against free kick takers James Milner and Mohamed Salah. When the referee blew his whistle, Milner ran first over the ball, leaving Salah to whip the ball with his left foot.

Martin Tyler: Taken by Salah...

The ball flew towards Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk, but Matthias cleared the ball outside with a header. However, the ball was retrieved by a Liverpool player around 10 yards outside the penalty area.

Martin Tyler: Out to Alexander-Arnold...

Then a long ball was launched a little too far for Takumi, forcing him to run after it. Although Takumi prevented the ball from going out of bounds, his attempted cross was quickly deflected out of bounds by Yusuke.

Martin Tyler: Corner for Liverpool.

"Not on my watch." Yusuke said.

"You're annoying." Takumi replied dryly.

On the following corner kick, nothing came out of it for Liverpool as the referee spotted a foul from a Liverpool player against a Manchester United defender. The match carried on with both sides trying to outsmart the other. With 2 teams using counterattacking setups as part of their respective identities, one timely interception followed by a quick and deadly counterattack was everything that was needed to tilt the balance on one side or on the other.

In the 29th minute:

Martin Tyler: Oxlade-Chamberlain... Salah...

The Liverpool players passed the ball around the middle of the park for a few seconds. Then one of them passed the ball to Takumi, who initiated an attack. Takumi dribbled his way past Nemanja, and had his sights locked on the Manchester United defenders.

'I can try running through' Takumi thought.

Martin Tyler: Here's Emishi...

As Takumi curved his run on the width of the pitch to try unsettling the Manchester United defenders, the Japanese striker pushed the ball a little further ahead of himself. However, Yusuke arrived and gained a position where he could give Takumi a shoulder charge. Takumi was thrown onto the ground by the much stronger Yusuke, but the referee did not flinch.

Martin Tyler: Some contact by Saeki, but nothing from the man who makes the decisions...

Much to the dismay of the Liverpool players and supporters, play was allowed to continue. The loose ball was retrieved by Matthias, who then passed the ball towards Pog. The Frenchman was running on a surging run across the halfway line on the counterattack with the crowd roaring in expectation.

Martin Tyler: Pogba's on the run... to Sánchez...

Pog passed the ball ahead to Alexis. The Liverpool defenders were scrambling to stop the attack, but Kakeru and Romelu were both making runs on the shoulders of the Liverpool defenders. Seeing that Romelu lured one extra Liverpool defender, Alexis made a cutting-edge through pass between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joël Matip. The pass went exactly just as Kakeru wanted it. The Japanese forward in red was all alone entering the Liverpool penalty area.

Martin Tyler: No offside! Fine ball to AIZAWA!!

Without any hesitation, Kakeru kicked a low and quick drive past the Liverpool goalkeeper in the bottom corner of the goal. Old Trafford erupted for the second time as the home team took a 2-goal cushion.

Martin Tyler: 2-0! Now with half of an hour gone through the game, and Kakeru Aizawa has made a mark against Liverpool again!

Kakeru celebrated by running towards the crowd and receiving a few hugs from the United supporters before he turned towards his equally ecstatic teammates.

"YEEEEAAHH!!!" the Manchester United players shouted.

"Great pass! Great pass!" Kakeru thanked Alexis for the pass.

"Big goal, Knight!" Alexis replied.

"You did it! Attaboy!" Romelu exclaimed.

"Great job, guys! Great job!" Matthias added.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"Well done, Kakeru! Great run!" Noriko exclaimed.

"That was a great counterattack! It was beautiful from start to finish!" Sarah exclaimed as she hugged Noriko.

"I know, right?"

"Yusuke really knocked their striker cleanly before our lads started the counterattack. After that, Kakeru made the run to give Sánchez the easier option." Robert remarked.

"Aye. Yusuke has the number on that Liverpool striker." Harry replied.

'Yusuke really put Emishi in his back pocket like no other. May it continue.' Noriko thought with a smile.

Gary Neville: Well, Jürgen Klopp will be disappointed. It all starts in the Manchester United half with Emishi losing the ball to Saeki, and then it's a quick counterattack. From Köhler to Pogba, and then to Alexis Sánchez. Alexander-Arnold and Matip missed their marking on Aizawa, who stays onside. Then it's a great ball from Sánchez to Aizawa, who was not going to miss that. Liverpool, who were pushing for an equalizer, are 0-2 down.

At the same time in New York:

"Great goal Kakeru!" Nana exclaimed.

"Great counterattack!" Taeko added.

"You can't ask for a better counterattack than that." Mina said.

"Right. Saeki-san did a good job, and everything became possible because he knew Emishi would try dribbling through again." Sakura replied.

"So far, Saeki-san is reading into his opponent like a book." Chika added.

"Serves him right." Mai said.

"Being a Chelsea player, it must better for your team if Manchester United wins. Right?" Kumi asked Mai.

"Yep. Our most immediate rival for the race to the top 4 right now is Liverpool, so it's good for us." Mai replied. "And besides, I still have a very soft spot for Kakerucchi."

Unlike the other Nadeshiko Japan players in the room, Kumi Yokoyama and Mana Iwabuchi did not know about Mai's high school crush on Kakeru.

"Did something happen between you and him?" Kumi asked.

"I... I could only wish, but he has always been faithful to Nana-chan. You have to respect him for that. Besides, it was a long time ago." Mai replied.

"That being said, we can focus on the match again." Nana finished.

Back at Old Trafford, the home crowd started singing out loud songs of praise to Kakeru and Manchester United before they followed with songs mocking the opposition on the day. The atmosphere, which was already charged with energy inside the stadium, got a few notches better.

With a 2-goal deficit against them, the Liverpool players tried to find ways to launch more dangerous attacks on the Manchester United goal. The team from Merseyside were desperately looking to cut the deficit in half before halftime. However, the home side remained compact in their own end while creating the stalemate on purpose between the two sides. Nevertheless, Liverpool earned a chance in the 40th minute.

Martin Tyler: Mané... just kept the ball in. Now Oxlade-Chamberlain...

Inside the Manchester United half, Sadio Mané managed to keep the ball in play before he ran with it on the width of the pitch. Then Mané passed the ball towards Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who then attempted a through pass towards Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian was arriving dangerously close to the Manchester United penalty area.

Martin Tyler: Now Salah giving chase...

Salah tried to get to the ball, but Matthias arrived first. The German defender chose to kick the ball behind the byline, and conceded the corner kick.

Martin Tyler: And Köhler... a little bit of a sticky moment for the German international.

Gary Neville: Well, I'm just thinking that 40 minutes in, we've not seen Liverpool play those little passes in-behind the full-backs and centre-backs where those runs from Salah, Emishi, and Mané would have caused problems. Köhler had to defend well there.

Both teams moved into positions inside the Manchester United area. When the referee felt ready, he made the signal for James Milner to take the corner kick.

Martin Tyler: Van Dijk is there. Matip is there.


Milner whipped the ball towards the front of the goal where Virgil van Dijk was making his run. Having escaped his marker for a split second, the Dutch centre-back threw his head in to fire the ball towards the goal. However, David de Gea parried the shot from point blank.

Martin Tyler: Van Dijk! Terrific stop by David de Gea!

The ball landed a little further to the side, allowing Kakeru to kick it beyond the touchlines. Takumi quickly ran to fetch the ball, and quickly proceeded with a throw-in. However, the referee blew his whistle.

Martin Tyler: Foul throw by Emishi.

"Oh, come on! I can't believe it!" Takumi exclaimed out loud to the referee.

In his haste to keep the attack alive, Takumi threw the ball from over his head with both hands. Although referees often close their eyes on the transgressions, some of them can signal the foul throw. Takumi could only walk away in disgust and under the jeers from the Old Trafford crowd as the result was a Manchester United ball.

"Looks like someone forgot the rules." Yusuke quipped.

"No one asked you." Takumi replied.

Despite the brief exchange, Yusuke still continued shadowing Takumi on what was becoming a very frustrating first half for the latter. The former Kamakura High midfielder was like a predator stalking its prey in the shape of the former Yoin Academy striker. Meanwhile, the play was shifting towards the Liverpool half of the field.

Martin Tyler: Aizawa is on the move. Sánchez is on the ball...

Alexis saw no direct path towards the Liverpool penalty area, and thus chose to pass the ball sideways to Romelu. The Belgian striker flicked the ball backwards to Nemanja, who then passed it to Antonio on the right flank.

Martin Tyler: Matić... Valencia...

Facing Andrew Robertson, Antonio had nowhere to go. The Ecuadorian right-back chose to send a long cross towards Alexis on the opposite flank and at the edge of the penalty area. The Chilean waited for the split second of hesitation from the nearest Liverpool defender. And when that happened, he made a clever chip pass towards a totally unmarked and yet onside Kakeru.

Martin Tyler: In by Sánchez... AIZAWA!!!

Seeing that the ball was slightly behind him, Kakeru attempted an audacious bicycle kick. Unfortunately, the strike flew barely wide to the post. In a flash, the vast majority of the 75,000+ inside Old Trafford put their hands on their heads in disbelief, including Kakeru.

Gary Neville: Big moment.

Martin Tyler: He had time for a touch, but he couldn't have known that, really.

Gary Neville: No. I have to say it's a wonderful pass and a wonderful touch by Sánchez. And what about this pass from Alexis Sánchez to Kakeru Aizawa? Not sure where Van Dijk and Matip were, but Aizawa finds himself on his own, thinking it's 3-0. It should be 3-0. Big moment, that.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"Bloody hell!" Noriko cursed.

"I agree: he had all the time and space in the world there. That's sad." Sarah said.

"It's easier said than done with just a split second in your mind." Harry replied. "Players often rely on instinct, but sometimes it fails. I have been there before too."

"If Kakeru scored that, it would have been game over already." Robert remarked.

"Regardless, the real task is to make it difficult for Liverpool." Harry replied.

"Spot on, Grandpa. Even if we don't score, we must keep on laying the same way we have done so far." Noriko finished.

From that point forward, the remaining time in the first half winded down with no noticeable event to talk about. Manchester United stood firm against Liverpool's attempts to breach the compact red unit, and the first half ended in frustration for the visitors.


Martin Tyler: Halftime is upon us. It's the team from Manchester in front. So far, Paul Pogba and Kakeru Aizawa have given Manchester United the 2-goal cushion. Virgil van Dijk could have cut the deficit in half, but David de Gea denied him. At halftime, it's Manchester 2-0 Liverpool.

While the crowd at Old Trafford applauded the result so far, it was also happiness for a few women in New York. Needless to say, Nana and Taeko were the happiest ones as members of Manchester United.

"Good half, so far." Taeko said.

"Yep! People may not like Mourinho's approach, but it was perfect to neutralize a team that thinks about attacking first." Nana replied.

"More of the same in the second half, I say." Taeko said.

"As a defender myself, I agree." Mina added.

"I'm getting hungry now." Mai said.

"Me too." Kumi and Chika said.

"Breakfast should be arriving at any time now. I called them to come up with it around the moment we hit halftime." Nana said before someone knocked at the door.

"Could it be?" Mai asked.

"I'll go and check it."

Nana went to open the door. A room service man from the hotel was there to deliver breakfast.

"Good morning, Ma'am. Did you order breakfast for 8 people at 8:15 AM?" the room service man asked.

"Yes! Great timing! Thank you." Nana replied.

Then Nana pulled out some money to pay the tip to the man. Moments later, the Nadeshiko Japan players got ready to enjoy their meal.


In the Manchester United dressing room at halftime:

"So far, so good, people. They will push hard early on, but it doesn't matter. Keep your feet moving, block shots, and hit them on the counterattack. Small simple things make the difference. Work hard and play our game. They will get tired. OK, let's go!" José gave a short and clear halftime speech.

The Manchester United players applauded in response. They were optimistic about getting the result, but they also knew that lots of things could happen within 45 minutes. The dressing room itself was pretty quiet as players were focusing on the task at hand.

'If I see space behind Alexander-Arnold again, I will run into it. He's a liability.' Kakeru thought.

'So far, I did well against Emishi. He will try pushing again, but he is so predictable. I'll make sure he gets even more frustrated by the time this match is over.' Yusuke thought.

Minutes later, the second half started with Liverpool kicking things off. The visitors were already pushing forward to try putting the home team back on its heels. In response, United played a simple game to disrupt the Liverpool attacks. Nevertheless, the first serious chance of the second half came to the team from Merseyside.

In the 50th minute:

Martin Tyler: Henderson... quick pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain...

The Liverpool captain strung a quick pass to his English teammate inside the middle circle. After a short run with the ball under some pressure coming from a Manchester United midfielder, Oxlade-Chamberlain completed a give-and-go with Andrew Robertson. At that moment, Liverpool were moving forward through their left wing.

Martin Tyler: Back to Oxlade-Chamberlain... to Milner.

The pass then came a little further ahead on the wing for James Milner, who came to support the attack. Milner then completed a quick give-and-go with a Liverpool teammate to move past Antonio Valencia, and was quickly approaching the Manchester United penalty area from the side.

Martin Tyler: He gets past Antonio Valencia...

Eric Bailly tried to interpose himself between Milner and the Manchester United goal, but the Englishman managed to kick a ground pass between the Ivorian's legs. The ball was arriving towards Takumi near the penalty spot.

Martin Tyler: Milner's cross! It goes to Emishi...

Takumi swiveled his body around to take a shot on goal from point blank. But suddenly, Yusuke put his body in the way of the shot.

Martin Tyler: Blocked by Saeki...

The ball rolled outside of the Manchester United penalty area, but Trent Alexander-Arnold retrieved the loose ball before he started dashing a couple of yards forward. There he took a shot towards the Manchester United goal. However, the shot was easily caught by the Manchester United goalkeeper.

Martin Tyler: Alexander-Arnold... It's smothered by David de Gea.

While the Liverpool players walked back in the opposite direction in disappointment, Takumi was still fuming at the fact that Yusuke thwarted him at the crucial moment again.

"Why can't I get away from him? Damn it!" Takumi shouted for himself out loud.

Then Takumi took a look behind him only to see Yusuke following him like the big shark from "Jaws" hunting for the next victim. However, Yusuke was thinking of a different metaphor to describe his job of man-marking Takumi.

"Do you want to smell my lunch or what?" Takumi asked Yusuke annoyingly.

"With you being the muddy duck, I'm the hawk prowling around my prey." Yusuke drily replied.

"Piss off."

Although Liverpool had the first serious chance of the second half, Manchester United still maintained a good control on the pace of the match. Running down the minutes was perfect for José Mourinho's team. The visitors from Merseyside could not find the gap leading to the goal. At one point, it was the Red Devils who launched the next dangerous attack on either goal.

In the 61st minute:

Martin Tyler: Too far for Emishi... Saeki... to Valencia...

Having retrieved the ball inside their own half, the Manchester United players started a counterattack. Yusuke passed the ball to Antonio, who then passed forward to Kakeru.

Martin Tyler: Aizawa... He's isolated.

Kakeru ran forward with the ball down the right flank, but there were 3 Liverpool defenders keeping up the pace to deny any individual dangerous action. Nevertheless, Kakeru arrived at some distance from the Liverpool penalty area. There, Kakeru surprised everyone when he launched a long and audacious ball to the far side. There the ball was perfect for Alexis to shoot the volley.

Martin Tyler: That's a great long ball to SÁNCHEZ! Karius kept it out!

Alexis struck the shot with some ferocity, but the Liverpool goalkeeper parried the shot away in a reflex reaction. The loose ball was then cleared by Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk out of play. Needless to say, Old Trafford was still buzzing at what just happened.

"That was a perfect ball. What a waste!" Noriko lamented

"It's a shame." Sarah added.

"Kakeru really pulled that pass out of nowhere." Robert said.

"Sánchez couldn't ask for any better. I just hope that miss won't bite us back." Noriko finished.

Meanwhile in New York:

"That really sucks!" Nana exclaimed.

"Kakerucchi made a great pass." Mai said.

"Their goalkeeper is somewhat lucky." Taeko replied.

"Tae-san is right. If that shot was struck further across or if the goalkeeper was any slower, it would have been 3-0." Mina added."

"We have to hope that Liverpool won't get energized by that save." Nana finished.

In fact, Manchester United continued to snuff Liverpool out by thwarting all potentially dangerous attacks. The visitors also resisted against attacks from the home team, but frustration was building up quickly among the Liverpool players. All it took was one spark for everything to reach boiling point and explode.

In the 69th minute:

Martin Tyler: A pass to Emishi... he gets past Pogba...

Trying to lead the charge on the attack, Takumi dribbled his way past Pog. However, he soon came up facing Yusuke in another 1v1 situation.

"Beat me if you can." Yusuke said.

"You again!" Takumi replied.

Takumi feinted a shift of his body to the left before he switched to the right. However, Yusuke was as agile as a cat to track Takumi's movements before he unloaded a crunching tackle that took the ball away from his Liverpool opponent.

Martin Tyler: Yusuke with a strong challenge. Referee says play on...

Down on the grass, Takumi threw his arms up and pleaded for a free kick.

"HEY! Free kick!" Takumi shouted.

The referee only waved at Takumi, asking the latter to get up and carry on.

'Son of a bitch!' Takumi thought as he waved back in frustration at the referee.

The action then moved into the opposite direction with Manchester United taking the action inside the Liverpool half. There the home side passed the ball around to wait for an opening as they saw no opening at that particular moment.

Martin Tyler: Saeki... Pogba...

Yusuke passed the ball towards Pog on the left. The Frenchman tried to dribble his way past Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but the English midfielder stood strong and started tussling for the ball. Then Takumi quickly came to support his English teammate with a sliding tackle that sent Pog down. Much to the dismay of the home supporters, the referee let the play continue. The loose ball went to Trent Alexander-Arnold, who then passed the ball forward to start a counterattack through Takumi.

Martin Tyler: Emishi going in pretty fierily...

Takumi ran with the ball forward. But Yusuke, who didn't like Takumi's tackle against Pog, immediately stuck a leg up to take Takumi down. The referee immediately blew his whistle to call the professional foul that meant an automatic yellow card, but Takumi had enough.

"That's it! Come here!" Takumi shouted.

Martin Tyler: And maybe we're going beyond...

Takumi charged into Yusuke, bumping chest against chest before he put both hands on Yusuke's face. In response, Yusuke used his stronger arms to yank Takumi away.

Gary Neville: Oh! They're going for each other.

Within 2 seconds, several Liverpool players came in to have a piece of Yusuke. Then Kakeru suddenly threw his body in to block 4 Liverpool players despite conceding a few inches against them. Hands and pushes were thrown against one another, and so were insults too. The crowd was also getting louder as the confrontation involved more people.

Martin Tyler: We're certainly at 100% now, but not in the right way. The referee has got some picking to do, but it has all kicked off in the 70th minute.

All 22 players gathered in the middle of the pitch, most of them trying to calm things down. In the end, it took a few players from both sides to pull the angry Takumi away. One of them was Kakeru.

"What the hell are you thinking? Calm down!" Kakeru asked.

"None of your business! That's between me and him!" Takumi replied.

"If you pick on Yusuke, you pick on all of us." Kakeru then shoved Takumi away.

While Takumi was being escorted away by 2 Liverpool players, the referee was busy dishing a yellow card against Yusuke for the deliberate clipping of Takumi. The vast majority inside Old Trafford were eagerly waiting for the referee to take action against Takumi, expecting a red card for his outburst.

Gary Neville: Emishi's first reaction to Saeki is, I think, an aggressive one. He doesn't like the challenge on him, but Emishi's reaction wasn't great. It started with a little bit of a tangle. Emishi clatters into Pogba; it was deemed as a fair challenge. Then Emishi gets tripped up by Saeki, and he snaps at that. After the bump, it looks like Emishi was trying to scratch Saeki's face. Then Aizawa plows in against 4 Liverpool players.

Pulling out his set of punishment cards, the referee then walked to Takumi and gave him an earful. The sanction finally came up in the form of yellow card, much to the utter disgust of the Manchester United supporters. Needless to say, Noriko was extremely displeased by the decision.


"What more did it take to send him off?" Sarah said out loud as well.

"COWARD!" Robert shouted at the referee.

While the vast majority in crowd voiced their displeasure at the referee. Yusuke and Takumi were far from finished although they were more than 10 yards apart.

"Think you're a tough guy, uh?" Yusuke chirped at Takumi.

"Want more, you dirty bastard?" Takumi retorted.

Gary Neville: They're still going at it.

"I'm here anytime." Yusuke replied. "I will gut you like a fish if you keep this up."

"Don't start something that you can't finish." Takumi said.

"You bet I will finish what I started. Let's have a scrap outside after the game, you and me."

"Come on, Yusuke. Cut it out." Kakeru tried to calm his friend down. "Stay focused on the game."

Meanwhile in New York:

"I don't believe this! There's no way Emishi should be still on." Nana said.

"That was a lousy job by the referee." Mai said. "Even I, as a neutral, feel that way."

"The referee is on his way of losing control of the match by not sending Emishi off." Taeko added.

"Yeah. It's not a good way to stop the escalation." Mina replied.

"We knew things could be bad when the referee appointments were announced, but I never thought it would be that bad." Nana said.

"In any case, I wouldn't be surprised if Emishi gets taken off soon. Liverpool already have Roberto Firmino getting ready on the bench." Taeko remarked.

Indeed, the Liverpool manager felt that Takumi did not make enough of an impression to deserve more playing time on the day. And considering the recent incident, it was imperative for Liverpool to avoid a red card while maintaining some attacking strength. On the following stoppage of play, the substitution was ordered by the 4th official.

Alan Keegan: Substitution for Liverpool: replacing number 13, Takumi Emishi... number 9, Roberto Firmino.

Takumi left the pitch under the boos of the thousands of Manchester United supporters. The former Yoin Academy striker was obviously displeased at being taken off without being able to make any impact.

The match continued with Manchester United using the same tactics to shut Liverpool down although substitutions were made on both sides. With time winding down, the feeling of urgency and desperation grew stronger for the Liverpool players. The men from Merseyside were pushing further forward and in greater numbers. Through sheer persistence, the visitors earned their big chance to cut the lead in half.

In the 83rd minute:

Martin Tyler: Salah trying to outrun Köhler... can't, but Liverpool have a corner.

Both teams moved into positions inside the Manchester United penalty area. When the referee decided that everything was fine, he gave the signal to proceed.


Martin Tyler: Milner to take...

James Milner whipped a curling ball that flew towards the area located between the 6-yard box and the penalty spot. Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk and United's Mathias Köhler both jumped towards the ball. However, the Dutchman beat the German in the air by redirecting the ball towards the goal. Then Sadio Mané, who escaped his marking and took advantage of Kakeru being busy marking Roberto Firmino nearby, stuck a foot out in the air to steer the ball out of the goalkeeper's reach. And suddenly, the scoreline became Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool!

Martin Tyler: Van Dijk... Mané taps it in! And Liverpool have got a goal back! It's now game on at Old Trafford!

In the aftermath of the goal that cut the deficit in half, the Liverpool players looked to take the ball back to the center circle quickly. However, the Manchester United goalkeeper grabbed the ball first and held onto it to delay the restart as much as possible. Angry by the Spaniard's reaction, nastiness ensued as the Liverpool players tried to snatch the ball away by force. Almost immediately, several Manchester United players came in to protect their goalkeeper by pushing and shoving their opponents.

Gary Neville: David de Gea held onto the ball. Liverpool are angry, United don't like the reaction. It's all kicked off again.

From dead silence right after the Liverpool goal, the Manchester United supporters became raucous again when the fight broke out. The referee blew his whistle to call for order, but the belligerents were not done yet. Insults and shoves were thrown on both sides. Once again, Kakeru was deep in the heat of the action. But this time, he was going hard against an opponent.

"Hey! **** off!" Trent Alexander-Arnold shouted at Kakeru.

"Who the **** you think you are?" Kakeru blurted back.

"Come on, calm down. Stay focused!" Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson pulled his teammate away.

"We're not finished."

"The ***** are you gonna do? Have a dead rat to eat." Kakeru shouted back at the Liverpool player.

"It's OK, Kakeru. Stand down." Yusuke was the one acting as a peacemaker this time.

Martin Tyler: There is no love lost between these 2 teams, and there won't be any time soon in this rivalry.

Finally, the players calmed down a little later before they made their way back for the restart. David de Gea and a Liverpool player received yellow cards for starting the altercation.

Meanwhile in New York:

"That was exactly what I feared after the chances we wasted." Nana said.

"It's going to be a hectic end to the match, alright." Taeko replied.

"Kakerucchi wanted a piece of the Liverpool player; I never saw him feisty like that before. Is it always like that against Liverpool?" Nana asked.

"Not always, but we and Liverpool really hate each other because of the history." Nana replied. "I can leave that to anyone's imagination."

"Oh." Mai simply said.

"We need to play it compact at the back from now on. They will definitely throw everything at us." Nana finished.

Nana was right: Liverpool took advantage of the momentum to continue pushing forward, searching for that elusive equalizer. In response, Manchester United pulled as many players back as possible to support the defenders. However, Liverpool are dangerous on the attack at all times.

In the 87th minute:

Martin Tyler: Robertson... He's having a go. Blocked by Köhler...

On the rush, Andrew Robertson attempted to make a through pass towards Roberto Firmino. Matthias attempted to clear the ball away, but it hit the top of his boot. As a result, the ball was bouncing high up with several players waiting for it underneath. Finally, it was Sadio Mané who retrieved the ball with his back to the goal.

Martin Tyler: Sadio Mané...

With 2 Manchester United defenders nearby, Mané walked with the ball outside of the penalty area, looking for someone to pass the ball to. When the right split second came, he passed the ball to James Milner on the flank.

Martin Tyler: Milner...

Almost immediately, Milner crossed the ball inside the penalty area. Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum, who replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain earlier, converged towards the expected pass trajectory. However, Eric Bailly jumped up to head the ball out of range of both Liverpool players.

Martin Tyler: It's headed away by Bailly, crucially.

The ball was still in play as it squirted out of the penalty area on the other side. Alexander-Arnold arrived to the ball first, but was soon confronted by a Manchester United defender.

Martin Tyler: Alexander-Arnold... to Salah.

Trent Alexander-Arnold made a back pass to Mohamed Salah, who then attempted a pass from just inside the penalty area. The ball struck Yusuke's elbow, which got several Liverpool players and supporters reacting.

Martin Tyler: Appeals for hand ball...

Seeing that the referee didn't react, Salah took a shot towards the Manchester United goal. However, it was an easy save for David de Gea. The Liverpool players were still arguing with the referee, but the latter was not blinking.

Gary Neville: The Liverpool players were appealing for a hand ball, but my first reaction was that Saeki had his arm very close to his body. It would have taken something extraordinary to award a penalty on that.

TV replays vindicated Gary Neville's words. Salah's attempted pass struck Yusuke's elbow, but the arm was aligned with the rest of his upper body. Furthermore, there was no intent from Yusuke to block the shot with an illegal hand or arm. Hence, the referee chose not to award a penalty kick.

Meanwhile in the stands:

"That was dangerous." Noriko said.

"I was afraid that the referee would call that." Sarah replied.

"What helped Yusuke was that he kept his arm close to his upper body." Robert said.

"Yep, but you just never know with referees." Noriko replied.

The match continued with United holding the line to keep the scoreline intact at the very least. Meanwhile, Liverpool continued to press forward. Yusuke was replaced by Ander Herrera in stoppage time in an attempt to disrupt Liverpool's momentum. With 5 minutes of stoppage time winding down after the regular 90, the visitors were desperately looking for one final chance.

In the 94th minute:

Martin Tyler: Salah...

Dribbling with the ball outside the Manchester United penalty area, Mohamed Salah was looking for an opportunity to pass. When he saw Wijnaldum lurking behind a couple of red shirts, the pass was made towards the Dutchman.

Martin Tyler: It's a clever reversal pass to Wijnaldum.

As Wijnaldum entered the penalty area, 3 Manchester United players scrambled to try stopping him. However, that was a decoy to set up Mohamed Salah. The Dutchman immediately made a layoff pass towards Salah a short distance outside of the penalty area. The Egyptian then took a low drive that rolled beyond David de Gea's reach, but...

Martin Tyler: Oh, that hit the outside of the post!

The ball rolled outside of the penalty area, but it was still in play. Ander tried to take control of the ball before he was clipped by a Liverpool player and saw the ball rolling behind the byline. Ander expected a foul to be called, but a corner kick was called instead.

Martin Tyler: Ander Herrera expected a free kick, but it's a corner kick for Liverpool. This could be the last chance of the match.

Both teams moved into positions, but Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius also moved forward to provide a greater presence in numbers in the attacking third. Finally, the referee made the signal.


James Milner took the corner kick again, but the ball was cleared outside the penalty area by Matthias this time. However, the ball was retrieved by Jordan Henderson outside of the penalty area.

Martin Tyler: Cleared by Köhler... only as far as Henderson. Karius has stayed forward.

Jordan Henderson then passed the ball to Roberto Firmino, who had to deal with Nemanja in a 1v1 situation inside the penalty area. Firmino then attempted a back pass to a teammate, but the ball went astray instead. Suddenly, Romelu retrieved the ball and started running in the opposite direction alongside Kakeru. The goal was empty at the other end!

Martin Tyler: A bad pass by Firmino... Karius is out of position! It's a clear run for Lukaku with Aizawa on his left.

Just as Loris Karius sprinted as quickly as possible to reach back to his own goal, Romelu ran with the ball until he crossed the halfway line. There, the big Belgian passed the ball on the left to Kakeru, who then suddenly made a stop in his run to turn into a right-footed shooting position.

"SHOOT!" Noriko shouted from her seat at Old Trafford.

"SHOOT, KAKERU!" Nana shouted at the same time in New York.

Although he was at the same level with the center circle, Kakeru launched a lob that flew with some pace. Then the ball started dipping dangerously towards the goal while Loris Karius was barely arriving on the edge of the penalty area.

Martin Tyler: Two defenders back... Karius is running back to his goal, but Aizawa goes from long way out...

The Liverpool goalkeeper was trying desperately to arrive in position. With no one there to help him, Karius rushed back inside the 6-yard box where he instinctively batted the ball with his left hand before he stumbled into the back of the net. In an agonizing moment, everyone inside Old Trafford was waiting to see there the ball was going. Finally, it went out of bounds and just outside the frame of the goal.

Martin Tyler: OH, GOODNESS ME! WHAT AN INCREDIBLE SAVE BY KARIUS! He came back to parry the ball away, but only just!

No one watching the match could believe that Karius made such a miraculous save. Nevertheless, Kakeru took it with a smile. He knew that he earned a corner kick, and thus his team could waste more precious seconds inside the Liverpool half. Ander took a short corner kick by passing the ball to Kakeru.

Martin Tyler: Ander Herrera takes it short. Aizawa...

When Kakeru came up facing Trent Alexander-Arnold, the Japanese forward taunted his opponent with a few seconds of dribbles that included no-touch dribbles, heel-to-heel flicks, and stepovers. Then Kakeru ran with the ball towards the corner flag where he shielded the ball before Alexander-Arnold came shoving him down.

Martin Tyler: Foul by Alexander-Arnold on Aizawa. He'll get a booking.

The referee produced a yellow card against Alexander-Arnold, who was overtaken by frustration. The vast majority inside Old Trafford cheered and sang their voices out as the result was almost confirmed.

"I told you we were not done." Alexander-Arnold said with a frustrated tone.

"Too late and totally useless." Kakeru simply replied with a smirk.

Pog took the short free kick by passing the ball to Kakeru, but it was all academic with injury time now well beyond what was prescribed.


Old Trafford erupted as the home side finally won the most recent encounter of an eternal rivalry.

Martin Tyler: They have done it. Manchester United extend the gap on Liverpool to 8 points, and stay on top of the Premier League. That resilience at home was key. Liverpool played better in the second half, but United controlled the first half with goals from Paul Pogba and from Aizawa, who has tormented Liverpool time and time again throughout the campaign. Liverpool came closer with a goal by Sadio Mané in the 83rd minute, but United held on to claim all 3 points. There were a couple of flashpoints between the 2 sides, but they are a part of the history in this sharp and serious rivalry in the Northwest. Great contest to start the Premier League weekend from a neutral's point of view. The final score: Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool.

While the celebrations were under way at Old Trafford, Nana and her friends were equally happy back in New York.

"Well done, boys!" Nana exclaimed.

"Now we can breathe a little easier now." Taeko said.

"I'm not supposed to be a fan of either side, but... phew! I'm happier to see Manchester United win that one." Mai said.

"It's good for Chelsea as long as they can win today." Mina remarked.

"They will win today." Mai replied.

"Well, what's next today?" Sakura asked.

"A couple of hours to chill, but then it's back to work." Taeko replied. "We have a game to play tomorrow."

"Yep! Let's get ourselves ready for Germany." Nana finished.

Back at Old Trafford, players from both teams shook hands. However, some handshakes were quite cold as no one had forgotten the 2 flashpoints involving opponents. Yusuke finally caught up with Takumi inside the players' tunnel.

"Thanks, Emishi." Yusuke said.

"For what?" Takumi asked.

"For getting me and Kakeru right in the mood from the moment you tried winding him up in the tunnel."

"Yeah, good one." Takumi simply replied with an unamused tone before he walked his way back to his team's dressing room.

"Rubbing salt in the wound?" Kakeru asked.

"Not really. I just thanked him for putting us in the mood before the game, so I guess he salted the wound himself." Yusuke replied.

Kakeru and Yusuke laughed.

"Ah, Kakeru and Yusuke, well played today. We will need you for the post-match interview on television with Geoff Shreeves." Karen Shotbolt, the club's press officer, asked both Japanese players in red to come over.

"OK, Karen. We're coming." Kakeru replied.

"Looks like one of us is the Man of the Match. I wonder if that's you." Yusuke said to Kakeru.

"It could be you. You had a great game today." Kakeru replied.

Then Kakeru and Yusuke arrived in the mixed zone where post-match interviews are given. After setting up for a few minutes, Geoff Shreeves started the interviews.

Geoff Shreeves: Kakeru and Yusuke, well played. Yusuke, the last time you played against Liverpool, you scored the winning goal. But today, you played a very specific role against the Liverpool attack. What did the manager ask from you today?

Yusuke: Well, the manager only asked me to follow the Liverpool striker anywhere because we knew how dangerous he can be when no one watches him. So, yeah, it was all I had to do today. When we win the 3 points, it's because we have done our job when it mattered.

Geoff Shreeves: Kakeru, you scored your 4th goal against Liverpool this season, and it proved to be the game-winning goal as well. How satisfying is that for you?

Kakeru: Yeah, matches against Liverpool are always big matches, and you dream to score a winning goal in those matches. It was the first time one of my goals made the whole difference on the scoresheet against Liverpool in this season, but anyone could have scored that goal, and we would have been happy regardless. With the title race being so tight, it was important to get the result at all costs, and we did that in the end.

Geoff Shreeves: Yusuke, we saw what happened between you and Emishi when you received a yellow card. Do you think the punishment should have been more severe against Emishi when he went after you?

Yusuke: I don't think I can comment on what the referee decided. He was facing a difficult situation at the time, and I can empathize with him. As for Emishi, I still don't understand what went through his mind. His emotions took the best of him, and I guess some things haven't changed since high school.

Geoff Shreeves: Kakeru, you immediately jumped in to protect Yusuke when everything kicked off at the time. You stood against 4 Liverpool players for a split second. Did you expect you would have to get in there?

Kakeru: Not really. I saw a teammate getting pushed around, and I only thought about protecting him. When you're in a team that is closely knit together, everyone is expected to fight for the man next to him. It's also a matter of pride that allows us to win the psychological battle too. We were never going to let our big historical rivals step on our toes without a reaction.

Geoff Shreeves: Yusuke, you played with Kakeru several years ago. Were you surprised when he stood up to the Liverpool players as he did?

Yusuke: *chuckles* A little. I used to be the one who protected him when we were young, but he is a lot stronger now. He will get in there to protect his teammates and friends alike. That is all we want to be as teammates fighting for each other.

Geoff Shreeves: OK, you did your job today, Yusuke. You're the Premier League Man of the Match. Kakeru, I'll let you give him the award.

Kakeru: Ah, OK. Well done, Yusuke.

Yusuke: Thanks, Kakeru.

3:35 PM GMT

After the post-match interviews, Kakeru and Yusuke were greeted in the dressing room with cheers and high fives from their teammates before in-house post-match rituals saw Yusuke crowned as the hardest-working player in the match voted by his peers. The players cleaned themselves and got changed before they would move on board of the team bus that would take the team back to the Lowry Hotel. Right before Yusuke hopped in, Yusuke wanted to make a phone call to Noriko.

"I'll just give a call to Noriko now. I'll join you in the bus." Yusuke said.

"OK, no problem." Kakeru walked his way onto the bus.

Yusuke then dialed Noriko's phone number.

"Hello, Yusuke! Man of the Match in a win against Liverpool! That's worth celebrating."

"Hello, Noriko! Thanks! What are you doing right now?"

"I'm chilling at Sam Platt's, drinking a beer with Sarah right now."

"Great. I'll get back to you later for dinner tonight. Kakeru will be with us." Yusuke said.

"And after that, we have the whole Saturday night just for us, right?" Noriko asked.

"You've got that right, Noriko."

"Where are you taking me tonight? The Lowry?"

"At the Hilton Manchester Deansgate." Yusuke replied.

"Oh, good choice there. I can't wait to show you a Saturday night surprise." Noriko spoke with a seductive tone.

"Oh... I love surprises." Yusuke replied with a big grin on his face.

"See you later then."

"See you later, Noriko. Bye!" Yusuke finished.

At Sam Platt's, Noriko ended the phone conversation. Sarah, who didn't understand one word of Japanese, was still watching Noriko's non-verbal language. The English woman could tell that her friend was in for a treat in the upcoming evening.

"So, where is it going to be this time?" Sarah asked.

"The Hilton on Deansgate. I've never been there before, but I've read that there is quite a view." Noriko replied.

"Do you think he has any clue about what to expect for tonight?"

"Not a chance. It will be better than Christmas Eve." Noriko finished.

Both Noriko and Sarah giggled.

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