Europa League final: Minnows v mega-club as Villarreal look to cause historic upset against Manchester United

La Liga side from a town of 23,000 are set for their first major European final where they take on one of the biggest clubs in the world

World Cup-winning defender Raul Albiol, right, brings plenty of major final experience to Villarreal. AFP
World Cup-winning defender Raul Albiol, right, brings plenty of major final experience to Villarreal. AFP

On the site where Villarreal now have their training pitches, orange trees used to grow. The soil and the climate in this part of coastal Spain are helpful to citrus fruit, although, as with all the best produce, it takes careful seeding and hard work to put it to good use.

Villarreal have an excellent, envied playing surface at the Ceramica stadium, meticulously tended because smooth, slick grass is important for the type of football they like to play.

The stadium is no skyscraper. There’s room for 23,000, which is utterly disproportionate to the town. Vila-real’s population barely reaches 50,000, though the reach of the fanbase extends across the region and has swelled in very quick time.

Until the late 1990s, Villarreal had never featured in the top division of Spanish football, and although they have suffered two relegations since then, they bounced back to keep on gatecrashing the elite. In this century so far, Villarreal have been in five major European semi-finals.

Against Arsenal earlier this month, they finally triumphed in one, and the reward, on Wednesday in Gdansk, is a Europa League final that could hardly present a sharper contrast of scale.

“Manchester United are a giant,” said the Villarreal central defender, Raul Albiol. Old Trafford could accommodate every citizen of Vila-real and still have more than 25,000 tickets left spare. The trophy room at Villarreal houses a third division championship and some runners-up prizes; Manchester United have been English champions 20 times, and among their full set of Uefa trophies are three European Cups.

Suffice to say that when, in April, the controversial and now defunct plans for a European Super League were being drawn up by 12 superclubs, with United among the ringleaders, Villarreal’s president, a very successful local businessman named Fernando Roig, was not phoned to see if he fancied joining. Roig has funded his club generously; he has not turned them into a global corporate juggernaut.

Instead of an aura, Villarreal have expertise, and for Wednesday’s task they have a made-to-measure specialist. Head coach Unai Emery, who guided Arsenal to the Europa League final in 2019 before being sacked a few months later, answered Roig’s summons last summer. The club’s place in Europe was part of the attraction: Emery won the Europa League three times as manager of Sevilla.

He set about this season’s campaign with the same studious care as Villarreal’s groundsmen attend to the pitch at the Ceramica. “We’re proud of our Europa League journey,” Emery said. “We’ve been consistent, serious and credible. We set out to win the group, and after that you know you will have to eliminate big clubs, or else clubs who have themselves knocked out big clubs, like Dinamo Zagreb did.”

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The Croatian side, who had beaten Tottenham Hotspur, ran into Emery’s fine-tuned knockout experts in the quarter-finals, where Villarreal recorded their 11th and 12th wins of their European run. They have lost none, and drawn only twice, holding Arsenal goalless in London in the second leg of the semi-final, enough to preserve their 2-1 first-leg advantage.

Albiol scored what turned out to be the winning goal in that tie. Emery leans on his vast experience. The defender will be 36 in September, and has been around major finals for half a lifetime. He won two European championships and a World Cup with Spain, in addition to a Liga title and a Spanish Cup with Real Madrid and a Coppa Italia with Napoli, from whom Villarreal signed him two summers ago.

For Albiol, a classic duel with United’s veteran centre-forward is in prospect: the Spanish warrior against the thoroughbred 34-year-old Uruguayan, Edinson Cavani, once of Napoli, and until last October of Paris Saint-Germain.

“We all know what a great player Cavani is,” said Albiol, “and what a great goalscorer. I know how loved he was in Naples. He’s someone who plays football from the soul and it is no surprise to me that, whatever his age, he is still scoring goals. The only thing that surprised me last year was that, after he left Paris, he was without a club for any time at all. But he’s found the right club to go to.

“When you reach a final, you expect to come up against the best strikers. The key is keeping up your concentration, finding the right level of tension and we’ve had a good Europa League in terms of conceding few goals.”

In the eight knockout matches, they have let in just three.

“People will obviously make United the favourites, because of their history, the financial differences between our clubs,” Albiol conceded. “But we’ve really grown this season and we know our strengths.”

Published: May 26, 2021 06:49 AM

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