Not that there is ever a European final that is not important for the two teams participating, but when Villarreal and Manchester United take on each other in the Uefa Europa League final in Gdansk, Poland on Wednesday night, both sides would be desperate for a win — for contrasting reasons.
For Unai Emery and Villarreal, a small town in Valencia that has a proud fan base, it is a shot at a trophy that has eluded them in their entire history. Villarreal is a club that has often been the feeder for bigger teams in Spain and Europe, with a family-like atmosphere in the club grooming many talented youngsters. Success has often meant the occasional match wins against significantly bigger teams and seeing their players go on to have successful careers, while the transfer fees go back into the club’s residential academy.
And now, arguably, the club is about to take part in the biggest game of their history.
For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, this is the chance — a golden one at that — to end the wait for a trophy as United boss. He will attempt to win his first trophy as Manchester United manager with hopes that victory could ignite another sustained run of success at Old Trafford.
The Norwegian, now 48, will forever be remembered for his late winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, and Solskjaer is eager to further embed himself in the club’s rich history.
Solskjaer’s first four semi-finals as United boss ended in defeat, including a 2-1 loss to eventual champions Sevilla in last season’s remodelled Europa League.
United crashed out in the Champions League group stage this term despite winning three of their first four games, heaping pressure on Solskjaer as rumours swirled about a possible move for Mauricio Pochettino.
A return of 10 points from nine matches saw United off to their worst league start since 1986-87, but, remarkably, Solskjaer’s side became just the fourth to go through an English top-flight campaign undefeated away from home.
The task, however, has become that little bit more difficult with Manchester United captain Harry Maguire a major doubt for that match after sitting out his side’s training session in Gdansk on Tuesday.
Emery will add to his already sparkling Europa League record if Villarreal beat Manchester United on Wednesday but victory would also turn an otherwise mediocre first season in charge into a great one.
Villarreal had just finished fifth in La Liga when they appointed Emery as coach last summer, with the Spaniard’s remit to take the club closer to winning titles and securing Champions League qualification.
He could achieve both in one fell swoop in Gdansk, where an upset against the much-fancied United would not only clinch Villarreal their first-ever major trophy but also a place in Europe’s premier tournament next season. Otherwise, the team will have to settle for a place in the third tier. The drop-off with a defeat would be huge, given Villarreal would not only end the season without silverware but shorn of a place even in the next Europa League.
“We respect United but we think we’re capable of winning this trophy,” said Emery last week. “We are going to play with the confidence we’ve shown throughout the whole competition.”
Their loss to Real Madrid on Saturday in the final La Liga match meant Emery’s side finished seventh, two spots lower and two points fewer than they managed last season, and enough only to qualify for Uefa’s new and less lucrative Europa Conference League.
There is no real sense yet of Emery being under pressure, in part because so much depends on how Villarreal fare against United, in what is their first European final since winning the Intertoto Cup in 2004.
“Villarreal have reached the Europa League semis three times before so if we hadn’t got to the final again it would have been hard for us,” said the club’s former midfielder Marcos Senna, who was in the team that won the Intertoto Cup 17 years ago.
“Manchester United are clear favourites because of their history and their budget. We’ve snuck through the back door a bit but if they play well, I think they can spring a surprise.”
Villarreal’s previous best in Europa League: semi-finals (2004, 2011, 2016)
Villarreal in Europe League 2020-’21: P14 W12 D2 L0 F30 A8*
Top scorers: Gerard Moreno, Paco Alcácer (6)
Uefa club rank: 22
Total titles in history (domestic league / Copa del Rey): 0
*Includes 3-0 win awarded to Villarreal for forfeited game against Qarabag
Manchester United’s previous best in Europe League: 2017 champions
Villarreal in Europe League 2020-’21: P8 W5 D2 L1 F18 A6
Top scorer: Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani (5)
Uefa club rank: 8
Total titles in history (domestic league / FA Cup): 20 / 12
2020-'21 League performances
|Manchester United||2 (PL)||38||21||11||6||73 - 44||29||74|
|Villarreal||7 (LaLiga)||38||15||13||10||60 - 44||16||58|
Having helped United secure successive top-four finishes for the first time since Alex Ferguson retired after the last of the club’s Premier League titles in 2013, Solskjaer hopes to now end their four-year wait for silverware in Gdansk.
“You always feel pressure to win things at Manchester United. Progress in the league shows progress. The next step is to win trophies and challenge in the Premier League as well,” he said.
“Winning a trophy can give you belief but it can make you hungry for more. When you win things you just want to win more, you want to feel that sensation again of lifting trophies.
“I know my players will believe they can win it and that we can move on to better things, but when you get that taste of the first one, that’s a big step in the right direction.”
Since replacing Jose Mourinho in December 2018, United’s gradual improvement under Solskjaer has resulted in the club finishing sixth, third and, this season, second in the Premier League.
“We’ve worked together two and a half years now and taken a step into the final after the near-misses we’ve had. To get to a final is one thing, but when you get to a final you need to win it,” said Solskjaer.
“Those nights when you win the trophy it brings everyone together, it’s a celebration.
“When we won in ‘99 it didn’t make me a better player. It didn’t make us individually better players, but as a group we believed that we could go on to win more stuff and we comfortably won the league the next couple of seasons.”
Only three starters from the 2-0 win over Ajax in the 2017 final remain at the club – Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata – with United seeking to end their longest run without a trophy since the 1980s.
“This game’s important for us. We’re so close to being a team that can compete and win trophies every single season. Maybe winning this title, this Europa League, can give us that little push that we need,” said Rashford.
Another obstacle in United’s way is Emery, a three-time Europa League champion with Sevilla who has overseen a 14-match unbeaten run in Europe with Villarreal to reach his fifth final.
All four previous meetings between United and Villarreal have finished goalless. A similar outcome is entirely plausible in Poland, but this time there will be a winner and loser regardless.
“It’s going to be special. You’ve got to be proud to be able to lead a Manchester United team out to a final,” said Solskjaer.
“It’s been a fantastic journey and, as we say in Norwegian, veien er målet (the goal is the journey). This is just a step on the road to bringing our Man United back.”
Emery knows what it takes to win the Europa League, having triumphed three times in a row with Sevilla between 2014 and 2016, the last time by beating Liverpool 3-1 in the final in Basel. He also reached the final two years ago with Arsenal, only to lose to Chelsea.
“Manchester United were the favourites from the start to win this tournament and they’ve managed to reach the final,” said Emery. “There were other teams who were favourites and haven’t done that but we have always seen ourselves as a contender.”
Villarreal are also flying the flag for Spain as the one team that denied the English Premier League a clean sweep of European finalists, with Manchester City up against Chelsea in the Champions League final on Saturday.
If Villarreal defeat United, Spain will boast seven of the last 10 Europa League champions, the others belonging to Chelsea in 2013 and 2019, and United in 2017, when Jose Mourinho’s side beat Ajax.
“The Premier League is dominating football in Europe,” Emery said. “But to reach a final you always have to knock out big teams, or teams that have knocked out big teams themselves, like Dinamo Zagreb. Games like these are a challenge. They tell you what level your team is at.”
VAR, Fans & Substitutions
Yes, there will be the drama of the Video Assistant Referee system. VAR was absent in the group stages of the tournament but has been used throughout the knockout phase of Europa League. As an aside, per Uefa, VAR is scheduled to be rolled out to the group stage next season as well.
For the final, five substitutions will be allowed, with a sixth permitted for each side if the final goes to extra time. The matchday squad consists of 23 players.
The Polish authorities have confirmed to Uefa a capacity of 25% of the stadium, up to 9,500 spectators, will be permitted. The finalists received 2,000 tickets apiece while 2,000 general public tickets were sold through the governing body.
The final is the 50th in Uefa Cup / Uefa Europa League history and the 12th since the competition was rebranded from the Uefa Cup.
Road to final
How Villarreal qualified: 5th in Liga last season
Group stage: Group I winners
Round of 32: 4-1 Salzburg
Round of 16: 4-0 Dynamo Kyiv
Quarter-finals: 3-1 Dinamo Zagreb
Semi-finals: 2-1 Arsenal
How Manchester United qualified: Transferred from Champions League (finished third)
Round of 32: 4-0 Real Sociedad (4-0a, 0-0h)
Round of 16: 2-1 AC Milan (1-1h, 1-0a)
Quarter-finals: 4-0 Granada (2-0a, 2-0h)
Semi-finals: 8-5 Roma (6-2h, 2-3a)
Recent winners of Europa League
2019/20: Sevilla (ESP)
2018/19: Chelsea (ENG)
2017/18: Atletico Madrid (ESP)
2016/17: Manchester United (ENG)
2015/16: Sevilla (ESP)
2014/15: Sevilla (ESP)
2013/14: Sevilla (ESP)
2012/13: Chelsea (ENG)
2011/12: Atletico Madrid (ESP)
2010/11: Porto (POR)
Match starts at 00.30 am IST on Thursday (Wednesday night in Europe) and will be broadcast on Sony Sports network.
(With AFP inputs)