• Tom Abadie


A few days before the pinnacle of European Club football, another European Cup final went right to the death to crown Villareal for the first time continental champions. While Manchester United were strong favourites, the penalty shootout eventually got the better of them, with David De Gea missing the ultimate penalty. We look back at this Europa League final 2021.

Going one step further

Last summer, the continental competitions were slightly changed, with ties going to a single match rather than a two-legged tie. Beating Brugge and taking a strong 5-0 lead against LASK before the COVID break, the Red Devils went on to beat LASK again after lockdown, before edging past Copenhagen in early August. In the semi-final however, their journey came to abrupt end when facing Europa League specialists, Sevilla, losing 2-1 to Suso and De Jong’s goals. Another semi-final loss for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a repetition of events throughout his tenure as manager of the Manchester club.

However, this year felt different. Manchester United cruised to a second spot in the league, looked very solid since turning things around in October and seem to be growing into one hell of a team. Unfortunately, cup competitions still seem to be a difficult for Ole’s men. After a good start to their Champions League campaign, losses to Bashakshehir, Paris and more importantly Leipzig in the final day meant they finished third of their group and were sent back into Europa League. Similar stories in national cups, where the final step seemed to be too high. Losses in the semi-final of the Carabao cup to Manchester City and the quarters against Leicester of the FA Cup meant yet again, United were slowly trailing to a trophyless season. Their last hope was European glory, once again.

Facing Real Sociedad seemed like no easy task to start with, but two solid performances led the Red Devils to the next round to face in-form AC Milan. Amad Diallo, freshly arrived from Italy, saved his team from a loss at Old Trafford, resulting in a 1-1 draw, before Pogba lit up San Siro in the second leg, squeezing Manchester United into yet another semi-final, this time to face Roma. Yet again, it felt like the story was going to repeat itself, when United were trailing at half time. However, 5 goals in the second half gave them a comfortable four goal advantage before going to Rome. A short 3-2 loss still push United into their first final under Solskjaer, their first chance at a trophy since losing a FA Cup final in 2018. Their previous trophy was this very Europa League with Mourinho in 2017.

Mr Europa League

Coming in with a few names from their 2017 final, United could gain silverware yet again with the likes of De Gea, Bailly, Mata and Pogba still in the squad 4 years down the line. On the other side, however, was the competition’s master, Unai Emery. Before the final, ex-Arsenal manager was joint top with the number of wins in this competition (including previous version of UEFA Cup) with Trapattoni, who won three cups (two with Juventus, one with Inter). Emery had brought Sevilla to three victories in his time in Andalucía, and was ready for a new challenge when joining Villareal this summer.

Emery might have been criticised for his “Good ebening” in England, his Spanish twang in France, but is heralded as one the best in the game back home in Spain. There, he was able to guide big or small teams to the heights of their respective divisions. He took Lorca to promotion in his first managerial role, as well as promoting Almeria for the first time in their history in his next role. His tenure at Valencia was impressive, taking them to the Champions League twice in three years, even with numerous sales. His time in Sevilla was impressive, winning three back-to-back Europa Leagues, leading to him getting the job in Paris. Many will remember him for the remontada against Barcelona, but his astute tactics still earnt the club many trophies. Falling short in Europe led to his sacking before he replaced legendary Wenger at the head of Arsenal. There, his tactics got confusing and he was misunderstood by the media and ultimately by his players. After a fair share of bad results, he was sacked yet again. He did manage to bring the Gunners to a final of… you guessed it… Europa League. But it was simply not enough, as Chelsea beat them comfortably in Baku in 2019.

Villareal was a whole new challenge. The club hadn’t reached the heights of La Liga in a while, and were failing to go far in Europe as well. An aging squad which relied on Raul Albiol, Gaspar and Carlos Bacca (all above 30). Intelligent recruitment lured in Etienne Capoue, Coquelin and Dani Parejo to back up a squad which in reality gave the limelight to two special players. Homegrown talent in Spain is truly valued, Pau Torres at the back and Gerard Moreno up front are perfect examples of that. The first has finally shown he can reach his potential, with many clubs showing interest in the young centre back, while the latter scored 30 goals all competitions, taking the Yellow Submarines to a European final and a 7th spot in the league, which would have qualified them for the new Conference League. However, while being big underdogs, the submarine was gently floating to continental glory.

David and Goliath

Coming into the final, Villareal were boosted by Maguire’s absence in defence for Manchester, while their top scorer Moreno was still on top form. All pundits, bookmakers and in all honesty, most football fans, saw this final going only one way, with the trophy going back to England. Emery had other plans. Playing a much lower block than his usual high pressing Villareal, Emery was giving United the ball and stopping them counter attacking, their main force this season. Having the ball for too long was not something United were used to and they clearly struggled to create chances throughout the game, particularly in the first half and extra time.

On the other hand, the Spaniards were sitting low, counter attacking with a few but more importantly taking advantage of every freekick they had. They did exactly that, with Gerard Moreno scoring from a Parejo delivery, giving the Spanish the lead. This gave them even more incentive to sit back. Struggling to create chances and get their main players on the ball, United were yet again trailing to another heartbreak in a cup competition.

They came back with better intentions in the second half, with a few clear-cut chances falling just short of a goal. Eventually, Edinson Cavani brought back United in the game with a bit of a scrapy goal. 1-1, with United pressing a lot higher and getting more opportunities. While Villareal were changing a few players, and bringing in Coquelin for a more solid pack, Solskjaer was trusting his 11 who seemed to be ever so tired. Extra-time eventually became true, with the two teams exhausted and not creating much. While dominating extra-time, Villareal did not really create much either in the extra 30 minutes, which led to penalties.

Bringing on Mata and Telles to shoot penalties, Solskjaer was confident his team could win this shootout. That was not counting on Villareal’s amazing squad, who all scored great penalties, including goalkeeper Rulli. The 11 first players for Villareal had scored their spot kick with ease, David De Gea was asked to take the ultimate penalty. Legend of the club but on a steep decline, this felt like a moment of redemption for past mistakes. Unfortunately, his low and weak kick to Rulli’s left resulted in a save, crowning Villareal champions of Europe for the first time in their history. The Europa League was crazy throughout the season, with ludicrous score lines at every stage of the competition and incredible narratives. The stories of Granada and Dinamo Zagreb were special, but nothing quite reached the story of Villareal and Emery, now the only manager to have won the competition four times. The Emery League. On that note, good ebening.