Tuesday 25 May 2021

Opposition in profile: Villarreal CF

And so it all comes down to this: Manchester United vs Villarreal for Europa League glory at the end of an exhausting and unprecedented 2020-21 season.
After four successive semi-final losses, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side finally broke that jinx and face the Yellow Submarines in Gdansk in our 61st and final game of a campaign squashed into only eight months.

It's been a season of progress for the side, with a second placed finish and 74 points. But to truly underline our upward trajectory, we need a trophy to add to the Old Trafford cabinet. The cupboard has been bare since 2017 - when United won this competition - and although it's not where you want to be, even winning the Europa League could prove to be a springboard and a launchpad for United's exciting mix of youth and experience. 

This will be the Red's eighth European final - of those, five have been won.  Only the might of Barcelona at the peak of their considerable, Pep-Guardiola inspired powers have stopped United in their tracks when Barca may not lie in our way this time, but United face Spanish opponents for the third time in European competition this season.

We got past Real Sociedad 4-0 on aggregate over two legs of our last 32 encounter and brushed aside the rank outsiders of Granada in the last eight by the same scoreline to set up a meeting with the club from the Castellon - a small but relatively successful club led by a familiar face.

United have played Villarreal four times before. We have never beaten them but, curiously, neither have they ever beaten us. Even more intriguing is the truly remarkable stat that each of those past four meetings have ended 0-0. Villarreal played a major part in United's shock early exit from the group stages of the 2005-06 Champions League as a side featuring Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Ruud van Nistelrooy et al were twice held to the dullest of stalemates by Manuel Pellegrini's men - although, in mitigation, Villarreal would progress all the way to that year's semi finals where they were beaten by Arsenal. 

The two sides also met three seasons later in the group stage but again United - who would reach the final that year - were again held to a pair of goalless games.
Surely this can't have ever happened before but one thing's for certain this time around - something has to give in Gdansk on Wednesday.

Villarreal have consistently punched above their weight and have had another impressive season in 2020-21. A seventh placed finish in Spain's La Liga is a strong effort for a club of their size but it's in Europe where they have shone. Perhaps almost inevitably, the stage was set for perennial Europa League winner Unai Emery to gain revenge on his former side Arsenal having been sacked and replaced by compatriot Mikel Arteta, and the Europa League master - a winner of this competition three times in a row between 2014 and 2016 - outclassed his rookie successor to dump his ex out of the tournament to set up this meeting with the Reds. 

Emery is not the only familiar face to watch out for in the opposition ranks. Former Watford and Spurs man Etienne Capoue plies his trade for Villarreal, so too ex-Gunner Francis Coquelin, veteran ex-Real Madrid man Raul Albiol, Spurs loanee Juan Foyth and Alberto Moreno, once of Liverpool. Villarreal defender Pau Torres has become linked with a move to Old Trafford as United look to strengthen their backline, and so we will get to see him in the flesh for what could be an audition ahead of a potential summer move. 

Gerard Moreno is the team's top scorer this term with 29 goals in all competitions - he has plundered six goals and grabbed four assists en route to Gdansk -  but he will be without his string-pulling partner in crime Samuel Chukwueze with the absence of the scintillating winger a major blow to the Yellow Submarines hopes of a first ever major honour. Paco Alcacer and Carlos Bacca will be vying to get the nod up top alongside the irrepressible Spanish marksman in Emery's preferred 4-4-2 system.  

Despite the fact United will start the final as strong favourites, Villarreal will be dangerous underdogs and have been mightily impressive throughout an unbeaten run to the final. Topping their group section with five wins and a draw, Emery's team dispatched RB Salzburg 4-1 on aggregate, Dynamo Kyiv 4-0 in the last 16 and then 3-1 over two legs over Tottenham's conquerors Dinamo Zagreb before the aforementioned semi final KO of Arsenal. 

Having already despatched of one Premier League heavyweight, Villarreal cannot be underestimated by a United side who are also no stranger to success in Europe's second tier tournament.
The Reds have been installed as favourites to go all the way ever since our ill-fated Champions League campaign came to a painfully premature end. United will look to become only the second English side to win the Europa League title having dropped out of the elite competition - Chelsea were the first, and so far only, side to do so in 2013.

Solskjaer still has his doubters, and those critics certainly will not be silenced if our trophy drought continues this week, but lifting silverware - any silverware - aloft tomorrow should signal to the dissenting voices that the affable Norwegian is the right man to to restore United to former glories.

The 2013 Norwegian Cup represents Solskjaer's only honour during his relatively brief managerial career to date, and adding to that somewhat modest haul will be no mean feat against Europa League expert Emery - himself looking to steer the Spaniards into a new era with their first ever major trophy 98 years into their existence. 

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