Football: United Heartbreak
Europa League Final
After Full-time and extra-time: 1-1
Villareal win 11-10 on penalties
This is why the ill-fated European Super League cannot become a reality. If the so-called ‘big clubs’ of European football had their way, the little dudes would never contest a final of anything; not the Champions League, not the Europa League and not even the upcoming Europa Conference League, itself created as a sop to some of those smaller clubs.
The reality of it is that all three competitions, in today’s world, exist for a select few - in their eyes at least. Of those, the most elite of them would be found in the first mentioned, with a guaranteed place down the line for those who didn’t reach as far as the final of it.
Left: Gerard Moreno scores for Villareal
But let there never be selection by money or past status. Villareal come from a very small place, and it is a club that has never won a European final before. Come to that, they had never been in one either. They are a club that encapsulates what football should be all about; the opportunity for anybody to rise through the ranks and be winners. Manchester United on the other hand, as with others of their outstanding tradition and history across England and Europe, are living on past glories.
Villareal were tipped by some as underdogs yet a look through their team reveals some very good players, experienced players, not to mention a manager with a point to prove. Unai Emery may not have set the imagination racing during his short time at Arsenal, but the north London club may one day look back with a tinge of regret at their impatience. Emery had his tactics spot on and his team set up to perfection for this Europa League final and clearly set out to frustrate and deny space, and thus opportunity, to Manchester United.
Not by any means a classic game, one had the sense that despite much of the early possession, United looked slow, ponderous and vulnerable, particularly at set-plays, so it was no surprise when Gerard Moreno was quicker than anybody else from a well-taken free kick to put the Spanish side ahead.
United continued to have most of the ball and a driving run from McTominay ended with his spooning the ball over the bar. Edinson Cavani found himself crowded out on more than one occasion, as did Marcus Rashford and it was the young England man who missed a golden opportunity just before half-time.
Left: Cavani equalises.
The second half saw United more assertive and another instance of fine play from McTominay saw a frantic scramble in the Villareal goalmouth before the ball was cleared. McTominay was proving to be one of United’s more effective players and from his movement a corner resulted in, inevitably, a goal from Cavani – his sixth in five Europa League games. It could have been United’s to win at this point, but Villareal dug deep to recover their first half strategy to deny anything and everything to their opponents and take the game into extra time.
The half hour that took was more of the same – United’s players running into blind alleys with no room to go anywhere but a dead end. In fairness, the Manchester club have a relatively young squad, with only Paul Pogba having anything approaching trophy-winning nous.
But even he was largely ineffective against players like former Liverpool man Alberto Moreno, Étienne Capoue, once of Arsenal, Argentina’s Juan Foyth, on loan from Tottenham and looking rather battered with head bandage, one nostril plugged and his left upper leg strapped. It’s also worth remembering that Villareal beat Arsenal in the semi-final of this competition.
Villareal had what United did not; a little extra experience where it counted in open play. That however, can mean little when extra time runs out and penalties have to decide who wins. Again this is where – normally at least – an edge can count.
Left: Rulli saves from De Gea
Nobody really thinks penalties are going the distance but credit to both sides here as everybody kept their nerve and scored until, after the five nominated players and the next four had done their stuff, only the goalkeepers were left.
Villareal’s Rulli scored, United’s De Gea didn’t and the Europa League champions came from Spain, not England. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said afterwards, “We’ve got to taste this feeling and make sure you don’t get it again.”
And of course he is right. Manchester United are on the right lines but if any club can learn a lesson from itself it is this one. The hiring and firing policies so favoured these days don’t work and Solskjaer needs time to carry on rebuilding. That is what the enduring legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson’s trophy-laden years at Old Trafford surely must show.
De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Bailly, Lindelof, Shaw; McTominay, Pogba; Greenwood, Fernandes, Rashford; Cavani.
Subs: Henderson, Telles, Maguire, Tuanzebe, Williams, Amad, Fred, James, Mata, Matic, Van de Beek
Rulli, Foyth, Albiol, Pau Torres, Pedraza, Parejo, Capoue, Trigueros, Moreno, Bacca, Pino
Subs: Asenjo, Gasper, Mori, Raba, Estupinan, Alcacer, Moerno, Coquelin, Pena, Gomez, Costa, Nino
Pictures - BT Sport