On his first Monday morning at work in his new office, Unai Emery, freshly appointed Aston Villa manager, had the television on in the background. It was showing the draws for February’s knockout rounds in various European competitions. By all accounts Emery barely gave them a glance.
In that sense, Emery finds himself in very unfamiliar territory. As he likes to point out, for the past 14 years of his coaching career, Emery has been an ever-present on touchlines in Uefa competitions, be it the old Uefa Cup, the very new Europa Conference League, the Europa League he has won four times, or the Champions League, where he was a semi-finalist as recently as May. Aston Villa, unlike most of his former employers, have not been in any of that sort of company for more than a decade.
But this being Emery, a positive thinker for whom the glass is never half empty but half full, a 15th successive year with cross-border adventures is very much a personal aspiration.
The Spaniard, who left Villarreal earlier this month with little hesitation once Villa had offered him the chance to replace the sacked Steven Gerrard, has been quietly reminding compatriots whose memories do not reach back to the early 1980s, that Villa have actually won the European Cup. He hardly expects to be leading them to that sort of summit again, but he believes some form of European football in 2023-24 is achievable.
He notes that is a prize available for the winners of the League Cup, who, assuming they have not earned access to Champions League or Europa League via their league position of an FA Cup triumph, will go into the play-off round for next season’s Conference League.
That will be in the back of Emery’s mind at Old Trafford on Thursday when he takes charge of his first away game with Villa, against Manchester United in the League Cup’s third round.
At the front of his mind? Sunday’s victory over United in the Premier League, a statement first game for a manager who had just returned to English football three years after being sacked by Arsenal.
The ups and downs of that chapter of his career meant his appointment at Villa was greeted with a little scepticism. Within 11 minutes, many doubts had been crushed.
Villa’s rush to a 2-0 lead over United proved again that Emery is master of the quick ambush – his Villarreal scored after three minutes of the home leg of their Champions League semi against Liverpool last season – and that he will expect Villa to raise their horizons and cast aside any ancient phobias: The 3-1 win over United was the club’s first league victory at Villa Park against those opponents for 27 years.
The line-ups will be significantly altered for tonight’s immediate reunion, because it is a tie in England’s secondary cup, some senior players need resting, junior ones given opportunities.
But Emery wants his stunning debut on Villa’s bench to launch a momentum, and to put to use his fabled expertise in knockout football, a skill that has taken his teams to five Europa League finals – a losing one with Arsenal; three victorious ones with Sevilla – and, during his two seasons at Paris Saint-Germain, a quartet of French domestic Cup triumphs.
Aston Villa 3 Manchester United 1: player ratings
His fourth, and most recent, Europa League success came at United’s expense, mid-budget Villarreal beating big-spending United via a marathon penalty shoot-out in Gdansk 18 months ago.
United would then beat Villarreal twice in the group stage of the following Champions League, but both clubs progressed. Emery’s overall record, in encounters with United while in charge of Valencia, Arsenal, Villarreal and now Villa is respectable: Three wins and four defeats in 10 matches.
He told the Spanish newspaper Marca this week he feels he can “build up Villa to return to Europe” while indicating he expects to be given funds to strengthen a squad that sit 13th in the Premier League. Sunday’s brilliant start was encouraging, but he will not be getting carried away. “On day one, everyone respects you,” he said, “by your 100th day in charge, the percentage who do varies. You have to earn respect every single day.”
He is quickly appreciating the size of the constituency whose respect he wants to gain. He was plainly buoyed by the weekend’s atmosphere at Villa Park, and struck by the obvious distinctions between Villarreal, the Spanish club from a town of barely 50,000, and Villa, the Premier League’s sole club from Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city.
“The sense of belonging in the Premier League is deep,” he said. “You sense how many fans identify with their club every day. It’s what makes the big investors focus on the Premier League. I’ve been given a big responsibility, and that’s what I want.”