VILLARREAL produced a performance of supreme discipline and determination to shock Manchester United and triumph in the Europa League final.

An early Gerard Moreno goal, followed by a display fixated on minimising space and restricting their opponents, earned Unai Emery’s side their first ever European title. They were taken to extra time thanks to a goal from the evergreen Edison Cavani but triumphed on spot kicks, with the decisive penalty miss coming from David De Gea after a remarkable 22-kick long shoot-out.

22 years to the day that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer poked the ball into the Bayern Munich net to bookend the club’s greatest ever season, the wait for silverware goes on for Manchester United. There have been many signs of progress this season in particular, but a fourth consecutive season ending trophyless is not becoming of the world’s most renowned football team.


United arriving in Gdansk unquestionably as heavy favourites, despite the absence of their captain Harry Maguire. The opposing Emery has justifiably formed a reputation as a specialist in these occasions, having led former side Sevilla to three consecutive Europa League wins from 2013. Villarreal’s main threat was goal scorer Moreno, no player domestically has had a larger share of his team’s goals in La Liga than the attacker.

Solskjaer’s men were quick to stamp authority on proceedings. They pressed aggressively when out of possession and it wasn’t until the 15th minute that their opponents were able to fashion a half chance from a corner.

In spite of this, when they weren’t able to exploit Villarreal in transition they struggled to play through their deep, compact 4-4-2 defensive shape which left little space between the lines. Snap shots from Scott McTominay and Luke Shaw which flashed wide were the only efforts of note. Paul Pogba did, starting in a deep midfield berth, have time and space to dictate exchanges.

For all United’s superiority, Villarreal closed every possible avenue their opponents sought to travel down and waited for their moment which would come on 29 minutes. The aforementioned Moreno used Raul Albiol to screen his run from a set piece and turned in a Dani Parejo free kick. It was his 30th goal of the season, and his team’s 100th.


If anyone is comfortable conceding first it is the Red Devils; they came from behind to win 10 Premier League matches this term. But their traditionally measured and harmonious manager Solskjaer was seen on more than one occasion berating his team in frustration in the opening half.

There was just an etch of anxiety prompted by this stubborn collective United faced. Sublime skill from Marcus Rashford almost found passage through the cluster of bright yellow shirts, but it was all a bit passive otherwise.

Buoyed on by a noisy, if small, travelling crowd United pressed on. Sure enough, and right on script, they equalised. Uruguayan Cavani was where all good penalty box strikers should be to slot home from the second phase of a corner in between the posts, which had been earned by the industry of the excellent McTominay.


As time wore on and without a lead to defend, space would start to open up for United. Rashford had to convert when he was free in the area and found. Somehow, he contrived to miss the target.

Then came extra time after a second period which featured many themes of the first with United unable really to create clear cut opportunities and their opponents relatively toothless in their endeavours to counterattack. Neither seriously tested opposing goal keepers and the match was to be decided from the penalty spot. The game was won when Gerónimo Rulli gussed right at the 11th time of asking to save from fellow goalkeeper De Gea.

The celebrations that ensued for the Spanish side were justifiably joyous. For supporters of a team from a small town punching above their wait season on season, who have spent their fair share of time outside of Spain’s top tier, this was a dream realised. This team will be Villarreal’s greatest, and rightly so.

For United, the disappointment and despair was palpable. This was a tournament Sir Alex Ferguson deemed a ‘penalty’ to drop into upon his side’s Champions League exit in 2011. This is not where United want to be, but if they cannot win games such as this, they will not return to those heights of 20 years ago.