Finishing runner-up in the Premier League this season may represent significant progress for Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but they are not in the business of settling for second best. It is trophies the club measures itself by and this has always been the way.
Acknowledging this leads us to some uncomfortable truths for the Reds ahead of Wednesday evening’s Europa League final in Gdansk, narratives that stack up and make this game infinitely more than a showpiece event. The last occasion they claimed silverware was via Jose Mourinho’s ‘treble’ all the way back in 2017 and furthermore this is the Norwegian’s first final as United boss after four lost semis.
Add in the very real possibility that just four days later their arch-rivals City might be champions of Europe and this becomes a contest United simply cannot afford to lose. It will define their whole campaign. It will either legitimize the advancements made in 2020/21 or have their manager and team cast as nearly men: worse yet, as under-achievers.
All of which is one heck of a burden to place on ninety minutes of football and that’s before we even get to United’s opponents who absolutely should not be under-valued.
Solskjaer’s men are rightfully 5/6 favourites and should be backed to prevail, thus ending their season on a high but don’t expect this to be anything like a straightforward affair. Indeed, Manchester United’s all-defining final could go right to the wire.
Unai lives in a yellow submarine
Villarreal may have slipped down a couple of places from last season in La Liga but Unai Emery’s first year in charge is still widely viewed in a positive light as he rebuilds his reputation post-Arsenal.
Well-organized, studded with technical proficiency and razor-sharp on the break, the Yellow Submarine have more than held their own in the league but their most consistent displays have been reserved for the Europa League, where the group stage and knock-out rounds were all navigated comfortably and unbeaten.
Perhaps this is hardly a surprise given that Emery is a Europa League specialist. On three successive occasions he took Seville all the way. This astonishingly will be his fifth final.
What impresses most about the Spanish outfit is their durability. Only once in the league have they been beaten by more than two goals and that came at Camp Nou. A very respectable 50 points meanwhile were amassed after scoring first in games, something they like to do early. A whopping 30% of their league haul was scored inside the opening 20 minutes of games.
Cancelling the other out
Should United find themselves behind however, it is unlikely they will panic even factoring in the enormity of the occasion. Throughout the season they have made a habit of recovering from losing positions, gaining 31 points all told.
Yet if the scoring patterns of both teams suggests a bright start for the Spaniards and an equalizer from the favourites don’t expect this game to continue a welcome trend in recent years that has blessed Europa League finals with a chock-full of goals. In the last 20 we have witnessed an average of 3.6 per game with only one 0-0 and one 1-0 among them.
Here though it will be tight, with conservatism the mandate of both sides and this can be assumed based on the approach of United and Villarreal to ‘big games’ in 2020/21.
For starters, though it’s barely relevant to Wednesday’s clash, it should be stated that the track record of both teams against their immediate peers is frankly a bit rubbish. Combined, from the 22 games against the ‘big six’ in England and the six teams that finished above Villarreal, only two wins were accrued. What matters here though is there were plenty of draws, and more so, plenty of games where the be-all-and-end-all was not to lose.
Emery will take great pride in stalemates masterminded against both Madrid giants while visits to top six rivals Real Sociedad and Real Betis both ended 1-1. Similarly, Solskjaer could barely contain his delight at negating Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea (twice).
Moreno v Cavani
Such a scenario would put United firmly in the frame, with their slightly superior sub’s bench and propensity to score late this season highlighting their staying power.
Which only leaves the question as to who will be the hero? Who will grab the headlines?
Edinson Cavani stands out in this regard, with the Uruguayan enjoying a rich seam of goal-scoring form of late. The United hit-man has converted nine in his last ten appearances, including a wonder-strike v Fulham.
As for Villarreal, it’s hard to look past Gerard Moreno as their main goal-threat. Enjoying a career-best campaign at the age of 29 the Spanish international has scored 29 times this term, equating to a goal every 119 minutes across all competitions, going right back to early September.