A decade ago, if I had told you that somewhere in the near future Manchester United would battle it out with Villarreal in a Europa League final, you wouldn’t bother to hear me out any further. Time flies, they rightly say and here we are; buzzed about this night in the Polish city of Gdansk. […]
A decade ago, if I had told you that somewhere in the near future Manchester United would battle it out with Villarreal in a Europa League final, you wouldn’t bother to hear me out any further. Time flies, they rightly say and here we are; buzzed about this night in the Polish city of Gdansk. Ole Gunnar Solskjær will look to prove the pundits wrong and bring back another European Trophy to Old Trafford, just like he did back in ‘99. European finals never come easy, and the presence of Unai Emery on the top of Villarreal’s roster won’t make it a plain sailing experience for the Red Devils. To his credit, Unai Emery has held the whip hand over this tournament. An unprecedented hattrick of Europa League titles with Sevilla implies that he knows his way around this competition.
DOORS OPEN FOR FANS
Big names are in plenty, and the 9500 pairs of eyes in the Gdansk Arena might not do justice to the hype around this game, but the players will argue that it’s always wonderful to have fans back after what has been a taxing and rather strange season of football. Manchester United will go to the Gdańsk Stadium as firm favourites, having finished the Premier League season on a high. However, when it comes to a European Final, neither team can be written off until the last minute; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will know a thing or two about that.
ROAD TO THE EUROPA LEAGUE FINAL
Back in October, Manchester United appeared to be cruising their way into the Champions League knock-out stages. Come Christmas, their boat had capsized and the Red Devils found themselves in the underworld of European competitions. Ever since, Ole’s men have pulled themselves together, and having secured a Champions League spot for next season, they have comfortably lodged their name in the Europa League final.
On the other hand, Villarreal, having secured a place in the group stages owing to their respectable 5th position in last season’s La Liga, have considerably underperformed in a domestic sense. Unai Emery showed signs of growth when earlier in the season, The Yellow Submarine went a record-breaking 19 games unbeaten in all competitions.
Things haven’t quite worked out since then, as Villarreal failed to secure a Europa League berth through La Liga. However, on the continental front, Villarreal has done enough to keep Unai Emery’s reputation intact, as they find themselves in a position to earn a place in next season’s Champions League.
After effortlessly making headway through the group stages, Villarreal smoothly ousted FC Dynamo Kyiv and GNK Dinamo Zagreb (thereby ending the much-celebrated Blue Fairytale of the Croatians) in the knockout rounds. These victories set them up in a semi-final, where against all odds, they got the better of Unai Emery’s ci-devant club and title-favorites, Arsenal.
The semi-final, as a matter of fact, can be considered the only real test that Villarreal had to surpass. Contrastingly, Manchester United has had to best the likes of Roma, AC Milan, and Villarreal’s La Liga rivals Real Sociedad on their way to the final, which they have done convincingly.
Two of United’s stand-out moments came versus the Italian giants that they leapfrogged on their way to the final, AC Milan and Roma. The round of 32 saw Manchester United and a reborn AC Milan fight for a spot in the quarter-finals. Both parties were considered favourites at the time of the draw, and the announcement of a clash between these two disappointed their supporters but set up a treat for neutral fans.
Amad Diallo, who is gradually being inducted into first-team affairs, scored for Manchester United through an incredible header over Donarumma’s head. This came on the back of an average United performance, which they were punished for via a Simon Kjær header late into stoppage time. In hindsight, Amad’s goal was much more significant for United’s success, since they gave the Rossoneri little to worry about throughout the first leg.
Another decisive moment came in the second tie when Paul Pogba deftly slotted home a winner to register United a place in the playoffs. Had Ole decided against substituting-in the French international at halftime, it would’ve been a completely different story.
Whether he’ll start on Wednesday between the sticks is still open for debate, but it is safe to say that David De Gea has been Manchester United’s most consistent player for the best part of the previous decade. And he justified the above assertion by putting on a show in the second leg of the semi-final against Roma.
It appeared that United had put the tie to bed in the first leg itself, but Roma came back strong on home turf and gave the Red Devils a run for their money. Responding to a Roma onslaught led by Edin Dzeko, Pedro, and Pellegrini, David De Gea made some incredible saves, and United clutched on to their berth in the final.
Villarreal went into the semi-final as clear underdogs. Talks about an all-English final in both the European Competitions were on. However, goals from Trigueros, a clean shot on goal through the legs of Arsenal’s defenders, and Raul Albiol, a cleanly shot strike from close range after a headed assist by Gerrard Moreno were key moments in their road to the final.
Arsenal and Villarreal were separated only by the quality of finishing, and Villarreal came out on top owing to these strikes in the first leg of the semi-final. Arsenal, at home, needed only one goal to get them through to the finals. However, excellent defending from Pau Torress and Raul Albiol in the second leg proved vital as Villarreal kept the likes of Aubameyang and Saka at bay.
WHERE THE GAME WILL BE WON AND LOST:
There is a precedent that the big guns in Manchester United’s artillery show up when their team needs them. On the flipside, Villarreal’s robustness, never say die attitude, and confidence has won their games.
It appears that the game will be won and lost in the midfield, where tenacity, creativity, and precision will be of paramount importance. Both sides boast of clinical finishers at their dispense, but whether these finishers will be served the balls they need would be the consequence of a midfield battle between the two sides.
Players to watch out for:
- United have missed their captain Harry Maguire at the heart of the defense for the past 4 games, and his return to the playing eleven will be subject to a late fitness test. Ole will look to start Tuanzebe, who has effectively played in place of Maguire (left center-back) for the past four games, alongside Lindelof, who has been a regular starter for United. This defensive pair will look to minimize errors and give a wide berth to the menacing striker duo of Bacca and Moreno. Losing the Pichichi to one Lionel Messi, Moreno has been in scintillating form this season, also has scored 6 goals in 8 starts this season. Lindelof will look to mitigate Moreno’s impact on the game and thereby silence his critics.
- Bruno Fernandes, United’s Portuguese magnifico, has won plaudits from across the world for single-handedly winning games for his team. Keeping Fernandes quiet has generally meant victory for the opposing team, and Villarreal will try to do exactly that. Unai Emery would want Etienne Capoue to be at his best if he has to keep Bruno from getting involved.
- While Ole has preferred to go with a double pivot featuring Scott Mctominay and Fred, it will be interesting to see which of his vast midfield personnel he chooses in Gdansk. Villarreal prefers to overload the midfield via their wide players, meaning Fred is a must-pick for carrying out ball-winning responsibilities. However, the presence of a technically disciplined and creative midfielder in the form of Donny van de Beek could bolster United’s claim in this area of the pitch.
- Villarreal’s full-backs, Gaspar and Pedraza often make forward runs, and the likes of Marcus Rashford and Greenwood will hope to take advantage of their defensive positioning through their pace. On the other hand, Villarreal will use their experienced players to full benefit, making sure that the likes of Albiol and Parejo restrict the relatively young United side. Trigueros will look to exploit his ball-winning capabilities, and Dani Parejo will want to reward Moreno and Bacca with forward balls.
- This match will also see a clash between two skilled veterans of the game, Raul Albiol and Edinson Cavani. They’ll try to get the better of each other and, considering Edinson Cavani’s magnificent form, the game can be decided based on which one bests the other.
- Ole might want to watch out for set-pieces, (one area of the game they’ve been particularly vulnerable in), and considering that United is going into this game as favorites, Emery’s men will look to capitalize upon them through Raul Albiol and Pau Torress.
To conclude, on paper United does look like the better team. And in all fairness, Villarreal hasn’t been at their best this season. However, things will stand even when these two take the pitch to fight for the Europa League trophy. Having secured Champions League football, United’s search for silverware, and a deserved reward for what has so far been a successful season will be their only incentives.
Villarreal on the other hand will look to make a steal and cap off their impressive run to the final with another Europa League trophy in Unai Emery’s pocket, while also bringing Champions League football back to the Estadio de la Cerámica.
SC’S PREDICTION FOR THE EUROPA LEAGUE FINAL!
SportCircle predicts that Villarreal’s desperation, strength, and experience will fall short to match Manchester United’s sheer quality, confidence, and class. All factors considered, it will be an amazing game to watch, yet it looks like the Red Devils will outclass the Yellow Submarine in a tight 2-1 victory.