Villarreal's Geronimo Rulli on surreal Europa League final and his bond with David de Gea

Goalkeeper scored winning penalty that secured trophy against Manchester United and is now set to resume battle in Champions League

Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli takes us back to the end of 120 minutes of the 2021 Europa League final in Gdansk on May 26. It’s 1-1 between favourites Manchester United and a Villarreal side playing in their first major European final.

“I’d studied a lot of the Manchester players and how they took penalties,” the 29-year-old Argentine tells The National.

“But you study and then your mind goes blank. I tried to save every penalty but it didn’t happen. I had a lot of responsibility. My teammates were scoring every single penalty. I touched five of them and couldn’t prevent a single goal.

“I’d looked at my partner in the stands before each penalty in the hope she could inspire me to save every single goal. None were saved. I felt like a failure. My teammates were not. They had scored, I had not saved.”

It was the same at the other end. With the scores at 10-10, it was time for both goalkeepers to take a penalty.

“I was angry when it was my turn to take a penalty, angry because I’d let 10 penalties in and thought ‘Gero, you have to score now.’”

The penalties were taken in front of the yellow shirts of 2,500 Villarreal fans. David de Gea, the Manchester United goalkeeper, came to Rulli.

“He said ‘good luck’ to me and I said ‘good luck’ to him,” recalls the former Estudiantes, Real Sociedad and Montpellier player who was contracted to Manchester City for a long time. Rulli went first with his penalty.

“Gero, please,” I said to myself. “Shoot straight to hit the goal and shoot strong. Try to shoot high into the goal. I wanted to put the ball in the place where I didn’t like to save penalties. Thankfully it went in. If not, I would have felt dead at that moment.”

Rulli then swapped and faced De Gea. This time, they didn’t speak as they passed each other.

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“He was the only player who I’d not studied because I don’t think he’s taken a penalty before. But when he ran towards the ball, I felt it would be difficult for him to shoot strong. When he opened his leg, I thought ‘He’s going left’. I saved it.

“There were two or three seconds when I was alone. I turned to see my partner. I didn’t see thirty or forty people running to jump on me. My teammates, the coaches. It feels incredible just to talk about this moment, I will never forget it. We had won the cup.”

De Gea? “He congratulated me. He’s a great person. I wanted to swap shirts but that wasn’t the moment. He’s one of the best goalkeepers in the history of Manchester, even if he didn’t have one or two seasons at his previous level. Because before that he was the most valuable player three or four seasons in a row.

“My opinion of De Gea right now is that he’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world. But in the final it was an unbelievable moment for me and a terrible one for him.”

Rulli is expected to be in goal at Old Trafford on Wednesday. The two teams drew their first four encounters 0-0 before that 1-1 at the end of 120 minutes in Gdansk. In their sixth meeting United really need a win after losing their first Champions League group game in Berne two weeks ago. Villarreal drew their first game at home to Atalanta.

Unai Emery’s side draw a lot — five of their six league games so far including a 0-0 in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid on Saturday. They were also drawing 1-1 against Chelsea at the end of the European Super Cup in Belfast last month. Chelsea won on 6-5 on penalties, but 2021 will be remembered for one of Villarreal’s greatest years after Gdansk in May.

“If I could choose to save a penalty from De Gea or another player, I would choose another player. I have an affinity with goalkeepers, our position is different. I didn’t think about that in Gdansk but I started to think that a lot two or three months later. I wished I’d saved from Cavani or Rashford or Bruno Fernandes. But I saved from De Gea and then I scored. I felt a liberation. It was incredible. The job of the goalkeeper is to save and not score.”

Rulli feels Villarreal, from a town north of Valencia of only 50,000 famous for making ceramics, deserved their triumph.

“I’d watched Manchester United and we knew everything about the team,” he explains. “We played the game in the Europa final like it was the last of our career. We played like a family, like we only had one mind. Our manager told us to do that, that we had an opportunity to enter the history of Villarreal. ‘This is your moment,’ said our coach Emery. He really motivated us and told us we had to give everything.

“If we did that we’d have more opportunities to win against Manchester United who everyone knew were the favourites, but we also did very well in the games to reach the final. Arsenal were favourites but we beat them at home and drew 0-0 away. We can do that.

“The game against Manchester was tough. We had to fight hard and fight for everyone. I think we did amazingly well. When we scored, Manchester came back stronger because they had to. We had to defend very close to my goal. It wasn’t perfect and it was very difficult for us. Then Cavani scored and they had other opportunities, but in the extra time I think we were the better team.

“I touched the ball two or three times only. We played better than Manchester, we had four shots and Manchester had one. We had more possession. It was such a special night. After celebrating with our fans, we stayed in the dressing room for three or four hours. Music. Crazy scenes. Happiness in a private situation. Then we flew straight back to Spain.

“Sixty thousand people waiting for us, more than [those who] live in the town. It was an amazing and then we went to the stadium. I did not sleep for two days and then I was able to be with my family again. My wife had been in Gdansk pregnant with our son. He will be born this or next week, but he was in Gdansk! And maybe I’ll be in Manchester when he’s born.”

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Rulli was pleased when Manchester United were drawn as their opponents. “It was special to be drawn against United again,” he added. |I want to play at Old Trafford for the first time and I think it will be a top match.”

He’s in a good place now, but he wasn’t even Villarreal’s number one goalkeeper for much of last season. That was Sergio Asenjo, the former Atletico goalkeeper who was displaced by one David de Gea in 2010. Rulli was preferred for European matches.

Rulli grew up in La Plata, a football and university city hour south of Buenos Aires.

“I supported Estudiantes as a child and went to the games with my friends. Every game. My hero was Juan Sebastian Veron and I got to play with him after he came back from Europe. He helped me understand football better, on and off the field. He was 38 when he came back to play with us and he was still the best player. The best. It was amazing to watch him.”

Estudiantes infamously beat Manchester United in two highly controversial, ill-tempered games in the English estimation to win the Inter Continental Cup in 1968, although Estudiantes fans don’t see it like that. “We all know about these games at Estudiantes,” says Rulli. “Part of our history.”

Ex-United defender Marcos Rojo was another of his teammates and Rulli is keen to point out how Rojo is prospering at Boca Juniors. Rulli broke into Estudiantes’ first team but wanted to play in Europe.

After making his debut at 19, he had three years, including the final one as first choice, before moving to Real Sociedad in 2014. His rights were bought by Uruguayan side Deportivo Maldonado, who had a link with Manchester City.

In 2014, David Moyes became his manager. “A very different coach to any I’d had before,” explains Rulli. “He saw football in a different way. The Spanish coaches are more tactical, the English coaches more on the physical side.

“I have very good memories of him. I spoke to him in English. David and his staff were special for me and encouraged me and improved me. I was sad when he left but I’m happy he’s doing well at West Ham.”

The sentiments are mutual. “He was a great lad, still a youngster, who’d just broken into the Real Sociedad team,” Moyes tells The National.

“I really liked him and his personality. His goalkeeping was from a different culture to what I knew — more South American in his style. He would close spaces down very quickly and get towards the attackers whereas I was used to see goalkeepers get set early to make their save.

“I’d watch him in training in San Sebastian and think ‘wow, this is completely different to what I’ve seen so far. Billy [McKinlay, Moyes’ assistant] and I still talk about him, we have fond memories of him and were pleased watching him in that great run in the Europa League last year.

“I always want to see players I’ve worked with be successful and I’m pleased he’s having a good career. He was outstanding when we beat Barcelona 1-0.”

It was Barcelona’s last defeat before they won the treble and Rulli was called up to play with the Argentina national team and was roommates with Sergio Romero in the national team for a couple of years before representing his country at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Rulli was a star at Sociedad and was bought by Manchester City for £4 million, but it was not what he expected.

“But I never went to Manchester and didn’t play a game for City,” he explains. “This week will be my first time in Manchester. City loaned me straight back to Real Sociedad.”

Rulli stayed in the Basque Country until a 2019 loan to Montpellier. “I had to go there to clear my mind, to play matches, to improve. That happened and I’m glad I played in France.”

After a year in Ligue 1 he joined Villarreal on a four-year contract. “There was a strong history of Argentina players here, Palermo, Riquelme, Sorin. And other South Americans. But that was 20 years ago.”

“He’s a very good professional on and off the pitch,” Villarreal’s goalkeeping coach Javi Garcia tells The National. “Respect when he plays and respectful when he doesn’t. He’s very open minded to new concepts. He knows his position very well and is capable is seeing the situations of others. He loves competition, he enjoys it.”

“Now, our aim this season is to improve,” concludes Rulli. “That will be difficult because we won the Europa League last year, but we want to be a top four or five team in La Liga. We want to do an amazing job in the Champions League and we know we are capable to do that. We’re in a very hard group. There is no favourite now.

“It was Manchester but they lost their first game. We drew with Atalanta and we are similar teams, both very offensive. Playing Manchester United will be tough, we know that. But it will be tough for them too and they know that too.”

Updated: September 28th 2021, 12:54 PM
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