“We are evenly matched,” observed Unai Emery of his Villarreal side and Manchester United before Tuesday's high-stakes Champions League meeting in Spain. No argument with that on the basis of the taut Group F table, of the long history of stalemates between these two clubs and an established pattern that if the deadlock does break, it is always very late in the day.
But for a Cristiano Ronaldo goal, five minutes into stoppage time at Old Trafford back in late September, there would be daylight at the top of a group where all the finishing places remain up for grabs going into the penultimate matchday. Thanks to another of the comebacks that peppered Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's time as United manager, three points were seized from Emery’s team after United had trailed early in the second half.
But should United, under the caretaker watch of Micheal Carrick following Solskjaer’s dismissal, lose this game the uneven aspects of any comparison between Villarreal and the club that likes to think of itself as the biggest in English’s football will come under sharp focus, United cast once again as a tottering Goliath.
The town Villarreal call home has less than 50,000 citizens; United have a stadium that could accommodate all of them and still offer seats to another 26,000. Villarreal spent €40 million ($45m) last summer on strengthening a squad that had just achieved the greatest triumph of the club’s history; United spent more than four times that, having been the losing bystanders at Villarreal’s historic triumph — in a Europa League final that stretched into a marathon penalty shoot-out and left Solskjaer’s men with the silver medals.
Contests between the plucky provincials from just inland of Spain’s Costa del Azahar and the United juggernaut have always been tight. Ronaldo will remember the frustration of his first visit to the compact Estadio de la Ceramica in 2005. United's forward line saw a 20-year-old Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney draw a blank in the 0-0 draw — when the England striker was shown a red card for sarcastically clapping the referee who had just booked him.
When the clubs shared another goalless draw later in that group phase, United stared into the abyss: They finished bottom of the group that season, a rarity during the era when Alex Ferguson was manager.
Four seasons later, in 2008-09, there would be two more goalless group-stage draws. Ronaldo was by then the owner of his first Ballon d’Or and on his way to a second successive Champions League final with United.
United 2 Villarreal 1: player ratings
Carrick was in that side, too, and would be forgiven for feeling his debut as a manager could have come to him in gentler circumstances than an away game in which a slip-up could plunge United from top of the group — where they are matching Villarreal’s seven points and in front by virtue of their comeback during the 2-1 win in Manchester — to third place. Atalanta, on five points, would move into one of the qualifying positions if they beat Young Boys and there is a winner in Spain.
“It’s a big game for both teams but one we can look forward to,” said Carrick, speaking barely 24 hours after learning Solskjaer had been sacked and he was to be promoted temporarily to take over. “For me it’s a new challenge, and one I’m looking forward to.
“It’s a limited time, but it’s about me preparing as best we can. Villarreal are organised, well coached, with technical players, speed and penetration. We’ll be going in with a plan to come out on top.”
Emery, who earlier this month turned down an offer to leave Villarreal for Newcastle United, took the opportunity to praise the departed Solskjaer, with whom he shared a touchline through a long night in Gdansk last May as the Europa League final locked at 1-1 through extra time and 21 penalties were then converted in the shoot-out before Geronimo Rulli kept out David de Gea’s spot-kick.
“I have come up against him [Solskjaer] many times,” said Emery, “and I have to say he’s a great person. When there’s a change of manager there’s always a reaction because the focus is on the players. United are always extra motivated in the Champions League. We have to be ready for Ronaldo, for Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, de Gea. It’s who’s on the field that matters.”