By Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz.
Here, at last, we reach the Christmas Bowl. Of course, we can't get there without more INTENSE TRAINING. So the main named characters of every other team in the playoffs to date (excluding Agon, who's off being a giant dick) are there to beat the crap out of everyone in order to make them stronger. Shin's chasing Sena in square roots to improve his cutting speed; Riku's attempting to give Ishimaru a personality... and teaching him to run faster; Kid and Tetsuma are improving Yukimitsu's ability to run routes; Akaba and Taki... are being giant idiots together; and the linebackers just get the crap beaten out of them.
But the focus here is Monta, who is having a crisis of faith now that he knows he's battling Honjo's son. He briefly goes so far as to quit the team, leading to he and Sena getting into a fistfight. This is the most stereotypical shonen section of the manga, with the character designs looking straight out of Hajime no Ippo, and the resolution, with Monta finally able to let go of the past (and Honjo's baseball glove) is utterly cliched but works well here. (We also get a great gag of Monta breaking Hiruma's cellphone... one of Hiruma's *170* cellphones. "What are all those for?")
And so, finally, the Christmas Bowl. It's snowing, too, how appropriate. Everyone seems to be showing up. Jumonji's father, still convinced he's an illbred thug but willing to watch his son play football; Sena's parents, who bring their cat (wtf?); and Hiruma's father, who is merely seen as a menacing shadow. Their are giant snow sculptures of the mascots, Suzuna and company are in cute Santa outfits, and we're all set.
Of course, Teikoku are a little less eccentric than the other teams we've met. Hiruma can't even find a good idiot to manipulate. And we also get to see them in action for the first time, including Karin. Karin and Sena are compared here, noting their essential meek shyness and their similarities in not wanting to do football initially. Unfortunately, once again ES21 has a good idea that's slightly flawed in execution, as it's made clear in flashbacks that Karin simply doesn't want to be there. She has great skills, and she'll use them when asked to, but she'd much rather have nothing to do with football. Whereas for Sena, football was a means to show him a better path in life, and he loves it now. I wish the creators hadn't drawn Karin sobbing during practices; it's meant to be funny, but just shows that they're forcing her a bit.
The game itself reads like all the other games in this series have; Deimon is outclassed in almost every way. Teikoku has vowed they'll shut out Deimon, and nothing here seems to make us think that that outcome is in doubt. (On the other hand, Ishimaru doing the Rodeo Drive was pretty cool.) We're finally at the point where Deimon may actually lose; it wouldn't be the first shonen sports manga to see the team fail in the championship and end with them vowing to come back even stronger. I suspect Deimon still has a few tricks up their sleeves, though. They certainly won't be shutout. We'll have to wait till October to see more, though.