Manchester United play their eighth European final on Wednesday in Gdansk against a Villarreal side playing their first. The Europa League is not the Champions League where United want to be, but the competition is still significant.
United’s 2017 Europa League win over Ajax under Jose Mourinho was the high point in the underwhelming post-Alex Ferguson era. A first trophy for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as United manager would end this season on a high and be counted as a success. Few United fans expected a top-two Premier League finish either.
Villarreal, who defeated Arsenal in the semi-finals, will be difficult opponents and were four minutes from beating Real Madrid away on Saturday in the final game of La Liga, where they finished seventh.
They will play in the inaugural Uefa Conference League unless they win on Wednesday, but United have eased past similarly placed Spanish teams in this season’s Europa League.
The English club’s record against Spanish sides was poor under Ferguson but the team, despite injuries to key players like Harry Maguire, are favourites because they have world-class attackers such as Edinson Cavani, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba.
Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood are also more capable of game-changing moments than any one Villarreal player, but the Spaniards have an excellent spine in the form of the experienced Raul Albiol and United target Pau Torres at the back, Dani Parejo in midfield and Gerard Moreno up front.
Moreno, a 29-year old Catalan and another product of Villarreal’s youth system, has been the top scoring Spaniard in La Liga the past two seasons.
In Unai Emery, Villarreal have a more experienced and successful coach than Solskjaer – and one who won the Europa League three times with Sevilla and reached the final with Arsenal.
He is especially motivated to beat another English side and vengeful after an underwhelming spell at Arsenal where he felt that monolinguistic English journalists mocked him for his mis-pronunciations.
Roma v Manchester United player ratings
Villarreal are unbeaten in 14 European games this season, winning 12 of them. No team has travelled more miles than the Yellow Submarine, who played in Azerbaijan, Israel, Turkey, Ukraine and Croatia before a less onerous trip to London for the semi-final second leg.
The defeat in Istanbul and the farcical goal conceded was a low point in the season, as was the opening 15 minutes in Leipzig. Yet had United stayed in the elite competition, it’s unlikely they would have a European final to look forward to.
Solskjaer’s side are not among the very best right now, though they have beaten top teams domestically and overcome formidable foes Roma, AC Milan and Real Sociedad.
United were unbeaten in all 19 Premier League away games in 2020-21, becoming only the fourth team in history to do so. United haven’t lost a game away from Old Trafford since January 2020.
It’s a remarkable record, with wins against and United Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham, Everton, Leicester, West Ham and Wolves, but there are no trophies for unbeaten runs and United need a first silverware since 2017.
Stats have been skewed by Covid-19 and the lack of crowds – and United’s form at Old Trafford has been poor for a side with title hopes. United won fewer than half of their 19 home matches, but two of the six defeats came at the start of the season and two right at the end in a flurry of fixtures. The trend points towards more consistency though, and Fernandes was a transformative signing.
In the dressing room, the mood is better than it was under Jose Mourinho. Players who don’t fit in with what Solskjaer envisages have been let go, while others who were perceived to be difficult like Pogba have been dealt with fairly by Solskjaer, who prefers to keep any criticism of players inside the dressing room.
He would let others go tomorrow, but it’s complicated since some are tied to long contracts where they earn far more than any potential suitor would pay for them.
Solskjaer thinks he needs to bring a minimum of three top signings in over the summer to have a side capable of properly challenging for the title. He wants a central defender and right-sided attacking midfielder; he also wants more competition at right-back and knows that he needs an upgrade on his central midfielders – specifically a holding midfielder. United have watched West Ham’s Declan Rice closely and feel that he has improved a lot this season.
Solskjaer also knows that Edinson Cavani, 34, will be good for around 60 per cent of United’s games at best. The Norwegian has been delighted with Cavani’s professionalism and how he delivers on the pitch. Solskjaer wants younger United players to continue to be inspired by Cavani and has also continued to believe in youth.
United have several talented prospects and four of them: Amad, Anthony Elanga, Shola Shoretire and Will Fish, played in Sunday's win at Wolves. None of these gifted teens are ready to be playing for United week in week out though.
United have money to spend and Solskjaer will likely be able to move some players off the wage bill, including Juan Mata, a fine pro who scored the winner at Wolves. The most money is likely to come for Jesse Lingard, who has shone on loan at West Ham.
But all that transfer noise will come after Wednesday’s final in Gdansk, where 2,000 fans from either team will be able to attend – though the process is complex for fans returning to the UK and requires a 10-day quarantine and multiple Covid tests. Fans hope they will be returning virus-free and also able to celebrate a much needed trophy.