The Polish city of Gdansk will play host to Wednesday’s Europa League final, where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United will face off with a Villarreal team led by former Arsenal manager Unai Emery.
The stakes could not be bigger for either club, but for entirely contrasting reasons. United are aiming to deliver a first trophy since they won the same competition in 2017. Doing so would prevent their trophy drought from stretching into a fifth year – the club has never gone so long without silverware since before the arrival of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Meanwhile, Villarreal have a glorious opportunity to win a first major trophy in the club’s 98-year history. Unai Emery – the Europa League’s most successful manager – was hired by the club with exactly this sort of occasion in mind.
Europa League Final Preview: Huge Pressure on Both Manchester United and Villarreal
How Manchester United Reached the Europa League Final
Manchester United began their European journey in this season’s Champions League. Despite getting themselves into a great position in a tricky group involving RB Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain, the Red Devils slipped to a third-placed finish and entered the Europa League in the last-32 stage.
Solskjaer’s side have had to get past teams from Italy and Spain in order to reach the Gdansk showpiece, and have done so in relative comfort. La Liga opponents Real Sociedad (last-32) and Granada (quarter-finals) were both beaten by a 4-0 aggregate scoreline. Serie A opponents Roma were put to the sword in an 8-5 aggregate goal-fest in the semi-finals.
Perhaps the biggest test Manchester United faced on their road to the final came in the form of Italian giants AC Milan in the last-16. A cagey 1-1 draw at Old Trafford put Solskjaer’s hopes of progression on a knife-edge before Paul Pogba got the only goal of a 1-0 victory away at the San Siro to keep the team moving in the competition.
How Villarreal Reached the Europa League Final
Villarreal’s route to Gdansk was arguably the trickier one on paper. Unai Emery’s side topped their group in the competition with a record of six wins and one draw – the only dropped points coming in a 1-1 draw away to Maccabi Tel-Aviv.
FC Salzburg were beaten home and away in the last-32, as were Dynamo Kyiv in the last-16 as the Spanish side started building up impressive momentum under the leadership of Europa league expert Emery.
Villarreal repeated the trick in their quarter-final clash with Dinamo Zagreb, setting up an intriguing semi-final with Emery’s former club, Premier League side Arsenal.
It was the La Liga outfit’s controlled dismissal of the Gunners that ensured their place in the final and alerted Manchester United to the fact that Emery’s team will be no pushovers in Gdansk. The Yellow Submarine won 2-1 in the first leg in Spain, before seeing the job through in a comfortable 0-0 draw at the Emirates Stadium a week later.
The Form Table Ahead of the Final
Manchester United’s recent form has raised some eyebrows ahead of a crucial European final. Solskjaer’s men went three league games without a victory going into the final round of Premier League fixtures away at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Among that run included arch-rivals Liverpool running riot at Old Trafford and scoring four times at the Theatre of Dreams. Relegated Fulham also left Manchester with a point.
However, this final will be played out a long way away from Old Trafford, where the Red Devils’ form has been worryingly indifferent all season. Victory at Wolves on Sunday ensured that Solskjaer has led his team through a full Premier League season without defeat away from home – Manchester United becoming only the fourth side in history to achieve that feat.
Villarreal’s last four games have given encouragement to their supporters ahead of Wednesday’s final. A home defeat by Celta Vigo was recovered from impressively, with Emery’s side beating Real Valladolid and Sevilla; the latter by a 4-0 scoreline.
In their final league game of the season – played a day earlier than scheduled to give the team as much time as possible to be ready for Wednesday – Villarreal were narrowly beaten by Real Madrid but squandered numerous chances to break away and score a winning goal of their own as Zinedine Zidane’s side chased their late winner.
Having won the Europa League on three consecutive occasions with Sevilla from 2014-2016, there is no more successful a manager in the competition than Unai Emery, who is plotting a way to win it for the fourth time, having also lost in 2019 final with Arsenal. Manchester United are likely to be without their captain Harry Maguire as they look to stop Emery’s side, meaning we are all set for a fascinating final in Gdansk on Wednesday.