Villarreal v Manchester United
Wednesday 26 May, 20:00
Live on BT Sport 1
Emery aiming to add to Europa legend
Having won a hat-trick of Europa League trophies as Sevilla boss, Unai Emery was desperately keen to add a fourth success in the competition to his tally in Baku in 2019, only for Eden Hazard to shred his Arsenal side on the Belgian’s farewell appearance for Chelsea. The Gunners were smashed 4-1 on a night when nothing really went right for the North London giants.
Now the Spaniard is back in the final, and there’s an argument to say that this has been his most impressive journey through the competition.
Having breezed through the group stage, the Yellow Submarine beat Salzburg home and away, and dished out exactly the same treatment to Dynamo Kyiv and Dinamo Zagreb. In the semi-finals, Villarreal wiped the floor with Arsenal at La Ceramica, and should have beaten Emery’s old team by a greater margin than 2-1. They then endured some nervy moments at the Emirates, but ground out a goalless draw that stamped their ticket to Gdansk.
But all has not been plain sailing this term. Saturday’s late collapse in a 2-1 defeat at Real Madrid (VCF were 1-0 up in the 86th minute) ultimately didn’t mean much, as wins for Real Sociedad and Real Betis would’ve kept Villarreal out of the top six anyway, but Emery’s side has now lost four of the last seven in the league. They only won 11 of their final 29 games of the league campaign. No-one is really expecting Villarreal to be in contention for a Champions League spot, but there is a fragility there that Arsenal palpably failed to exploit over two legs.
Samuel Chukwueze, who is one of Villarreal’s most dangerous and effective attacking players, is still struggling with injury. On-loan Tottenham defender Juan Foyth is also struggling, with Mario Gaspar poised to deputise.
Solskjaer closing in on maiden glory
There have been many who have doubted the coaching nous of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and have questioned whether he truly is the right man to take Manchester United back to the summit of English and European football. United’s collapse in the Champions League added fuel to that particular fire, and his failure to lift a trophy is another stick he has been beaten with. Having finally broken his semi-final curse, Solskjaer has the chance to finally add some silverware as a coach to the glittering array of trophies he won as a United player.
One of the reasons Solskjaer is often questioned is that he has an expensively-assembled and lavishly-gifted squad, so should be challenging for silverware. Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba are world-class midfielders, Edinson Cavani is a proven performer in attack, and the defence boasts England internationals Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire. In goal, United can afford to leave out David De Gea, who rightly or wrongly has been regarded at times as one of the best goalkeepers in Europe.
Having dropped into the UEL in calamitous fashion, no-one can accuse Solskjaer or United or not taking the competition seriously.
They have remained unbeaten in the knockout phase, and none of the ties they have contested have featured minnows or pushovers. Strong lineups have been selected, and there has been a clear desire to improve upon last season’s semi-final exit to Sevilla.
The major injury doubt is Maguire, who has travelled with the squad but is not expected to be fully fit. Solskjaer will give him every chance to recover from an ankle injury, but he has admitted a return to the starting XI is unlikely. Anthony Martial has been on sidelines for quite some time, and he’s been left behind.
United can take the crown within 90 minutes
United are 1.910/11 favourites in the Match Odds market, and I think that’s a price that has been inflated by the likely absence of Harry Maguire from the Red Devils’ defence. United have overcome Real Sociedad, Granada, Milan and Roma in the knockout phase, and despite the coaching excellence of Emery, I would put Villarreal in that bracket.
Solskjaer’s men are capable of having a shocker now and again, but with a first major trophy under the Norwegian within touching distance, and with so much attacking quality in the side, I’ll back United to win the final inside 90 minutes.
Cavani to shine
Edinson Cavani has shown his quality as a dedicated centre-forward this season, and the competitive flame still burns brightly in the Uruguayan. It would be a shock if Solskjaer didn’t ask the former PSG forward to spearhead the attack here, and it’s worth noting that he has scored in seven of his last ten matches in all competitions. He scored a brace in each of the two semi-final matches against Roma, and I think he’s overpriced to score here at 2.747/4.
I also like the look of a bet that’s been boosted on the Sportsbook. You can back both Cavani and the excellent Villarreal striker Gerard Moreno to each have at least one shot on target at a hefty 2.56/4. I think that’s a fantastic bet, because Moreno has scored 23 goals in La Liga, and six in the Europa League. If Villarreal are to pose a threat in Gdansk, Moreno will be their chief outlet.