UEFA’s second-tier European club football offering is set to conclude this Wednesday in Poland as Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United takes on Unai Emery’s Villarreal CF at the Stadion Miejski in Gdańsk.
The Red Devils concluded their Premier League campaign last week with a 2-1 victory away at Wolverhampton Wanderers, ending the season in second place with 74 points, 12 points behind champions Manchester City. Villarreal, on the other hand, ended their LaLiga campaign in seventh place with 58 points as they succumbed to a last-gasp 2-1 defeat against Real Madrid on Matchday 38.
In two and a half years of Solskjær’s charge of United, the team have continued to grow season after season. With better player acquisitions, gradual clear-out of deadwood, refurbishment of the path from the youth academy into the first team, increased spirits and togetherness in the dressing room, and a stable starting XI indicate that the team are now on a much better footing that they were when José Mourinho was dismissed in December 2018. United’s underwhelming transfer business ahead of the 2020-21 season, which has continued to exacerbate the team’s already well-defined weak points, makes their second-place finish in the league an even more remarkable achievement. Yet, United are trophyless since 2017, and that’s an issue they need to address as quickly as they can.
Villarreal, on the other hand, have had a mid-table finish – much like the previous season – in Unai Emery’s first season at the club; given they escaped relegation by seven points two seasons ago, “boring stability” is not something they’d be ruing for the time being. Unai Emery’s footballing credentials were decimated by the time he was dismissed from Arsenal in November 2019, so the fact that his first season at Villarreal has ended in a mid-table finish in LaLiga and has led the team to a European cup final, which also included beating his former side in the semis, has gone a long way to resuscitate the Spaniard’s reputation.
As far as injuries are concerned, Manchester United will almost certainly have to play without their captain, Harry Maguire. The England international had started every league match for United since his arrival from Leicester City last season, but suffered an untimely ankle injury in United’s match against Aston Villa two weeks ago. His absence was keenly felt in United’s league matches since then, which included two back-to-back home defeats against Leicester City and Liverpool and a draw against Fulham. Given United’s well-documented issues at the back, Maguire’s absence will be a major worry for the team. While he has travelled to Poland as part of the travelling squad, it looks highly unlikely that he’ll be risked for the game, especially with the Euros just around the corner, for which he might have an outside chance of making it into the England squad. Anthony Martial will also be a major miss for the side. While he has been making a speedy recovery from his long-term knee injury, he hasn’t travelled with the squad, and hence, won’t be seen before next season.
Villarreal, on the other hand, will be missing their right-winger, Samuel Chukwueze. The Nigeria international had been a key part of Emery’s first team but suffered a hamstring tear during his side’s Europa League semi-final second leg against Arsenal. Although 18-year-old Yeremi Pino gave a great account of himself as he scored Villarreal’s only goal in their 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid last week and will likely feature in the game, Chukwueze will be sorely missed.
Although, on paper, Man United are favourites to win the final, they’ll know better than to underestimate Villarreal. In the midfield, since United don’t have a proper ball-playing number six for major occasions, Solskjær has had to rely on the defensive pivot of Fred and Scott McTominay more often than he’d have liked. While they’re both good at what they do – cut passing lanes, offer consistent press, out-wide supportive movement – neither of them is inherently good on the ball. While either of them would make an excellent partner to a ball-playing midfielder, together they form the majority of a midfield that is not going to hold the ball for too long, especially against what their opposition will be boasting. Dani Parejo, Villareal’s 32-year-old seasoned Spaniard, has been one of the best midfielders over the past few years. He will be supported by a defensive midfielder in either Étienne Capoue or Francis Coquelin – both very good operators in their own right. Playing in a 4-4-2 with midfielders supported from out wide, the Yellow Submarine will likely be enjoying a lot of the ball, which will allow them ample opportunities to pick apart United’s defensive frailties.
United’s inability to deal with far-post crosses has been a major issue since last season and has resulted in many high-profile errors. Last season, United were picked apart in the Europa League semi-final by one such goal from Sevilla. Most recently, they conceded one very soft goal in the exact same manner against Fulham. They have had issues with crosses with Maguire on the pitch, so his absence will only require the backline to be ever more vigilant. Based on game time, Victor Lindelöf and Eric Bailly will be the likely pick for the centre-back pairing, although Axel Tuanzebe has proved reliable with his performances this month. Up front for Villarreal will be Gerard Moreno, who has been in red-hot form this season with 29 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, and Carlos Bacca, whose recent hattrick against Sevilla might just help him pip Paco Alcácer to a berth in the starting XI.
Respectively, in their last UEL semi-final second legs, while Manchester United were almost taken apart by Roma in a scenario they had no right to, Villarreal played out a very professional 0-0 draw against Arsenal who needed just one goal to qualify. United have garnered a reputation for being the comeback kings this season but have been rather profligate when they score first. Against Villarreal, however, they’ll need to bring as much incision up front as they can to complement their counterattacking speed, for Villarreal will gladly take their chances at attempting to keep United at bay if they manage to score first.
Manchester United last won a trophy in 2017, which was the Europa League itself. They’re on their worst trophy drought in just over three decades. The result of Monday will leave the Red Devils with a lasting taste going into the summer, so it’s crucial for the team to end the season on a high and a with a trophy. Solskjær has clearly improved the squad on a lot of fronts, but his team will need to cross the final hurdle sooner or later to gain some much-needed belief – that they are coming for the biggest prizes and are ready to go all the way.
Villarreal, on the other hand, have Mr. Europa League himself on their side. Unai Emery has won the trophy three times and also took Arsenal to its final two seasons ago. Although they have confirmed European participation for next season by qualifying for the Europa Conference League, Villareal have a shot at getting into the Champions League instead, should they win on Wednesday. Both sides have legitimate reasons to be going for the trophy. Both sides will be keen to conclude their seasons on one very high note.
IST for the UEFA Europa League Final Kick-off – 12.30 AM on Thursday, 27 May 2021
Where to Watch – Sony TEN 2 / SonyLIV