Thus, My New Year Starts With a Bang
It's a tradition for us Japanese to visit shrines in the early morning hours of New Year's Day. There, we pray - obviously, what else do you do at a a shrine? We also state our wishes for the coming year ahead for the Gods to listen to, in the hopes that they assist us in fulfilling those dreams.
Now, I'm not really a traditional person, but I've pretty much grown used to the notion of New Year shrine visits, having practiced it since I was born.
However, I quickly found out that there were no such shrines in the city of Liverpool. Of course, that could also be down to myself as I hadn't exactly found the time to search hard enough thanks to my responsibilities as a football manager.
Thus, I went for the next best thing: dialing home on the first hour of 2016.
My little sister, Komachi, was the one who picked up the phone. I could recognize that infectiously enthusiastic voice anywhere.
"Helloooo! Hikigaya household!"
"Yo, it's me. Happy New Year."
"Ah, big bro! Hey! What's up?" She instantly identified my voice as well. "Well, it's not New Year over here though. Not yet, anyway."
"Yeah, yeah, I know, but it's 12am over here so I just figured I should call. Is everything okay back home? How's Mom and Dad? Are you doing fine at school?"
That was enough to provoke a childish-sounding complain. "Jeez, you're asking way too many questions you know!"
"I'm sorry for worrying," I shot back. "I know you can't function without me, after all."
There are very few people in my life I genuinely enjoy talking to, let alone the number of individuals with whom I can speak without any restraint. Komachi was both, and for good reason. We shared a close sibling relationship and strangely, she was probably what I missed most from back home. Not the food, not the lifestyle, but my younger sister.
"Isn't it more like the other way around?" Her comeback was swift. "Mom and Dad are okay. For me, um... it's been the norm, I guess. University is fun and all, I'm just looking forward to graduating soon."
"That's good. Maybe I'll fly back for your graduation."
"Awesome! You'd better be there," Komachi said gleefully. "More importantly, aren't you busy with an important match tomorrow? Are you sure you should be up past midnight?"
"Hm? How do you know about that?" I wasn't aware of her being interested in football. She never really was the sporty type.
She replied in a tone that chided me for being the biggest idiot on the planet. "Of course I follow the team my brother is involved in. You guys play Manchester United tomorrow, right?"
I was impressed. I had been here for half a year and I still had trouble memorizing the full name of Liverpool's biggest rivals. It was usually just United to me, nothing more.
"Yeah, United," I let out a sigh. "It's going to be a hard game. They're one of the toughest to beat."
The day of my debut as Liverpool manager was a day I remembered clearly - it was the day Juan Mata condemned my new colleagues to a 0-2 loss against United at Anfield.
"Wow, big bro... I've known you all my life and this is the first time I've seen you actually giving a crap about something!" Komachi was in complete awe, as if she had just seen a dinosaur. "Am I dreaming? Am I?"
To be honest, I was also feeling fairly surprised.
"It comes with the job," I went with the best explanation I could muster. "It pays really well. I don't want to get fired, so I have to care about the results and all that. I don't really care much for anything else."
"I'm just happy you've finally found something in your life to be passionate about!"
Passion? That was an exaggeration to me, though I didn't think it was a necessity to correct her on that front.
"Now if only you could develop some social skills..."
Leave it to Komachi to make a jibe right after a positive comment.
In all fairness, she wasn't wrong. It's true, I lack social skills, and I have been lacking them for the best part of 22 years. I don't see the need to change that fact now.
The phone call continued with some banter back and forth, up until her insistence that I had to catch some shuteye.
"I'm gonna try and catch the game tomorrow!" Komachi informed me. "Good luck, bro!"
I was going to tell her to refrain from watching my team make fools of themselves against arguably one of the best football clubs in the world.
It was too late. The phone line went dead before I could open my mouth. With a sigh, I sank into bed, pulling the covers over my field of vision.
As I drifted off to sleep, taking all three points from United was the only thing on my mind.
Louis van Gaal.
Struggling to commit names to memory is a trait that I've had since young, especially if it was the name of someone I didn't really care about.
However, remembering the name of van Gaal was anything but a tough task. His trademark ugly-looking hairstyle reminded me of everything I had to know.
"It's good to see you again, Hikigaya," said the Dutchman warmly. "Good luck."
Wishing an opponent luck was a senseless move that I never understood. I simply nodded in response and turned my attention back to the pitch as United kicked off.
The first man to have a kick of the ball was Juan Mata.
"This guy," I took the time to recall my words to the squad in the dressing room. "Juan Mata. He's dangerous. Whatever he wants to do, don't let him do it. Mark him. Tackle him. Foul him. Whatever. Anything. Just stop him. He's dangerous."
I repeated the word 'dangerous' about six or seven times. Here's hoping they got the message I was trying to put across.
I watched intently, as both teams began to settle into their individual styles of play. Unlike last time around, there was the privilege of selecting a strong first-team lineup, so I felt a slight bit more confident.
Sure, we had no chance of demolishing United completely in their own backyard, Old Trafford, but we could definitely give them a hard game.
A front three of Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge guaranteed goals. Thankfully, they all happened to be fit and firing. That fact encouraged me to employ an offensive 4-3-3 formation.
Against a team that I recognized as stronger than ours, it was common sense to play defensively.
Even so, from what little experience I had in football management, I knew that taking risks worked sometimes. Sometimes.
All of a sudden, the entirety of Old Trafford erupted into a mixture of boos and cheers.
Two minutes in. Liverpool 1, United 0. Sturridge.
Shit, what the heck just happened? I kept my eyes glued to the replay on the large screen above the stadium. Lallana had played a beautiful lob in for Sturridge and my striker demonstrated his gratitude with an excellent finish.
As the Liverpool players piled on top of Sturridge, I just punched the air.
No need to get too excited, not when there was 88 minutes left to play for. I saw fire in the eyes of the United players. If they pulled one goal back, there was no doubt about it. We were going to crumble.
"Concentrate!" I screamed. I didn't know if the players could hear me over their ecstasy, yet this was something that needed to be said. "Keep your focus! You've not won yet!"
That line seemed to keep the boys on their toes. It took just eight minutes for David de Gea to be tested again, this time by James Milner.
It wasn't 2-0, but the sight of Liverpool dominating proceedings looked fantastic.
The end of 45 minutes saw my starting eleven file into the Old Trafford dressing room. The scoreline remained 1-0.
I clapped my hands, signalling for all of them to look up at my face. That was what my elementary school teacher used to do. I figured it would also work on a group of grown men.
"Okay, let's get down to it," I took a deep breath. "You are all playing fucking fantastic."
Some players burst out laughing, the rest made do with a broad smile on their lips.
"Keep playing like this and we're going to win for sure. But," I took a moment to pause, emphasizing on that last word. "No complacency. Focus. The game isn't over until it's 90 minutes. There's still one more half, and there's everything to play for. Keep at it."
I stopped the team talk briefly, allowing them all a few seconds to process what had just been said.
"Sakho, Skrtel," I turned my attention to the center-backs. "You guys are doing great at hushing Mata. Don't stop. Mark him. Tackle him. Foul him. Anything. Whatever. Make sure that little bugger isn't in the game at all. He's an invisible presence. He can't accomplish anything. And you guys are in charge of making sure of that. So make sure of it. If anyone can help United get back into the game, it's Mata."
They looked at me as if I was retarded. I could feel their facial expressions questioning why I hated United's attacking midfielder so much. At the very least, they made the effort to reply, "Sure, boss."
"Anyway, I've said everything that can be said. Now it's up to all of you whether we take home these three points or not."
With that, the starting eleven exited the room and made their way back onto the field. I stopped Sturridge as he walked past.
A quizzical look was present on the goalscorer's face.
"Excuse me, gaffer?"
"Hat trick. I want a hat trick."
He looked at me, dumbfounded. "It isn't that easy, gaffer."
Yeah, I know, I'm not that stupid. "I believe in you. You're the best finisher I have. I'm one hundred percent sure you can do it. Go out there and get those three points for us."
Sturridge grinned. "Alright. I'll try my best not to let you down." Equipped with renewed vigor, he sprinted away.
To be honest, I wasn't exactly that optimistic. Regardless, there wasn't any harm in giving footballers that extra bit of self-belief.
Time to get hoping for that hat trick.
You know those times when you watch a horror flick and it's so good that you just have to watch it again? I think I've done that once in my life. I enjoy some horror from time to time because let's be truthful here, real life's already horror in itself.
At the moment, United were the ones rewatching that horror movie, titled Daniel Sturridge. It's a grade A movie, if I do say so myself.
2-0. Literally history repeating itself. Lallana drifted the ball over three United defenders to Sturridge once again. And Sturridge, once again, followed up with the greatest finish I've ever seen.
I looked at the clock. 67 minutes, but studying the defeated faces of United's players told me it was already over.
They came out after half-time rejuvenated and ready to threaten. Wayne Rooney enjoyed the best chance three minutes into the second half. Thank God his finishing was sub-par, completely opposite to that of Sturridge. The ball went way wide of it's intended target. From the corner of my eye, I had caught Louis van Gaal's reaction of smacking his head in disgust.
And hey, that was two goals for Sturridge. One more for the promised hat trick, I thought.
United looked ready to pack their bags and leave. It came as no surprise that Sturridge's third goal of the afternoon arrived barely ten minutes later.
He sprayed the ball out for Alberto Moreno, who crossed it back for the striker to head it into the net past David de Gea.
I turned my attention over to United's attacking trident. Compared to Liverpool's hat trick hero, Mata was hardly getting a sniff.
Sturridge celebrated his hat trick wildly, but he didn't forget to shoot a thumbs-up back to the dugout. Despite mostly failing to acknowledge friendly gestures, I responded to this one perfectly, giving him a thumbs-up in return.
A fourth for the goal assassin, who was currently playing in the, if I had to guess, best game of his life, looked imminent.
United players were placing more emphasis on him now. This backfired though, as Matteo Darmian's rough push on Sturridge resulted in the referee calling for a penalty.
Midfield-bossing Milner promptly stepped up to convert it for 4-0.
4-0 against Manchester United at Old Trafford. I could hardly believe it.
I looked up at the stands as Milner hi-fived his teammates. Several United fans were getting up to leave. Even the United players themselves looked like they badly wanted to join their own supporters.
Their wishes were swiftly granted, as the rest of the game passed without any incident.
"Congratulations, you have Liverpool playing very well," was all Louis van Gaal said, as he shook my hand at the end of the game.
Nothing else was said. Van Gaal disappeared as quickly as a parting ghost, choosing to hurry down the tunnel instead of exchanging further pleasantries.
I couldn't care less. 4-0. What a way to start my 2016.
I didn't know what this emotion was. Happiness? Satisfaction? All I knew was that I liked it. Loved it, even. Maybe this football management job wasn't so bad after all.
By the end of the day, I had completely forgotten about Juan Mata.