It was a clash that will live long in the memory and it was a clash that had massive implications for Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Wednesday night’s Europa League final against Villarreal in Gdansk, Poland, was set up to herald a new dawn for United: Their first trophy in four years, a reward for their steady progress in the Premier League, and a spot as a top seed in next season’s Champions League.
Ahead of the game, all the pundits, from Paul Scholes and Gary Neville to Dion Dublin and Neil Lennon, were talking about what this victory over the team that finished seventh in La Liga and have never won a significant trophy of any shape in their 98-year history would mean for the Red Devils going into a bright new future.
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It was 22 years to the day since Solskjaer’s famous late winner against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. Even Sir Alex Ferguson was in Gdansk to present the trophy to the winners.
One problem: No one told Villarreal to read the script. A first-half goal from Moreno thanks to some sloppy United defending gave the ‘Yellow Submarine’ the lead somewhat against the run of play. The evergreen Edinson Cavani levelled for United after the break and it was one-way traffic from the men in red as they pushed for a winner. You can never count out the tenacity of an Unai Emery team in the Europa League — the Villarreal coach won this trophy three times in a row with Sevilla from 2014-16 — and United once again were left to rue their missed chances (I’m looking at a once-again anonymous Paul Pogba, sloppy Bruno Fernandes and an especially profligate Marcus Rashford) against a resilient Villarreal defence.
And so it went to extra time (that bit will not live long in the memory) and ultimately one of the most enthralling penalty shoot-outs in years. It was a question of who would blink first, but both teams had their eyes in full focus as we witnessed 21 perfectly executed penalties including one from the Spaniards’ brilliantly named keeper Geronimo Rulli — 11-10 Villarreal. It fell to the 22nd and final player on the pitch to take his spot kick. United’s David de Gea never looked confident and his poor attempt was saved by Rulli. The Belgian will go down in history as the man who missed the chance, but the real villains of the piece were the wasteful outfield United men who should have killed the game.
Questions must also be asked about Solskjaer’s management as he used his first substitution in the 110th minute of action when his men looked dead on their feet. Surely fresh legs in the shape of Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic or the criminally underused Donny van de Beek would have made the crucial difference midway through the second half when they had Villarreal on the ropes.
But that is in the past already. Instead United must now face a bleaker future as their barren spell heads into a fifth season. On this showing, their wait will go on as, if they cannot see off Villarreal — the seventh best team in Spain — how will they fare against neighbours City, and the cream of Europe in the shape of PSG, Barcelona, Real and Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich?
Questions prevail on a night that was meant to give United all the answers.