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Europa League Final: It’s now or never for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United

FOOTBALL By Reuters | May 26th 2021
Football - Premier League - Fulham v Manchester United - Craven Cottage, London, Britain - January 20, 2021. Manchester United's Paul Pogba celebrates scoring their second goal with Bruno Fernandes. [REUTERS/Clive Rose]

Two managers with differing resumes of success in continental competition prepare their sides for battle in Gdansk as Villarreal take on Manchester United in tonight’s Europa League final.

The Yellow Submarine sent Arsenal packing 2-1 on aggregate in the final four to advance to the showpiece event, while Man United put eight past Roma over two legs as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer searches for his first piece of silverware since assuming office.

Villarreal’s La Liga campaign ended in disappointment with a 2-1 defeat to eventual runner-up Real Madrid on Saturday, whereas United secured victory in the Premier League by the same scoreline over Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The stage was set for perennial Europa League winner Unai Emery to get revenge on Arsenal after being given the boot by the North London outfit, and the Europa League master outclassed European novice Mikel Arteta to dump his former side out of the tournament.

It is not just Emery’s personal record on the line this week, as Villarreal’s 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid at the weekend - means that a spot in the UEFA Conference League looms unless they can come up trumps in Gdansk and return to the biggest stage of them all in the Champions League.

With an astonishing record of 12 wins and two draws in their 14 Europa League matches so far, Villarreal may be the underdogs going into today’s final, but Emery just seems to have that secret formula for success on the continental stage and Man United would commit an act of folly if they failed to do their research on the opposing coach.

Having reached the semi-finals of Europe’s secondary competition three times in the past, Villarreal have now become the 11th different Spanish side to book their place in a continental final, and history favours them too, as English teams have now lost nine times in a row when facing Spanish sides in the final.

Football - Europa League - Semi Final First Leg - Villarreal v Arsenal - Estadio de la Ceramica, Villarreal, Spain - April 29, 2021. Arsenal's Bukayo Saka in action with Villarreal's Pau Torres. [REUTERS/Pablo Morano]

Furthermore, Emery’s exciting crop have found the back of the net in 13 of their 14 Europa League games so far this term - with the goalless draw at the Emirates being the only exception - and Gerard Moreno has been at the heart of it all with six goals and four assists en route to Gdansk.

It was Jose Mourinho’s Man United side that broke Emery’s hot streak of three successive Europa League wins in the 2016-17 season, where they overcame Ajax in the final, and the Red Devils will now seek to sink the Yellow Submarine and add some silverware to the trophy cabinet for the first time since that triumph four years ago.

Having managed to delay Manchester City’s title coronation for weeks on end, United’s inevitable second-placed finish in the Premier League was confirmed earlier this month as Solskjaer’s side lost their golden touch, although three games in five days in the wake of Old Trafford protests hardly helped their cause.

With more than one eye on the Gdansk final, Solskjaer placed faith in his academy talents against Wolves on the final day of the Premier League season, and it paid off as Anthony Elanga’s bullet header preceded a coolly dispatched penalty from Juan Mata as they ended the season with a flourish.

The Red Devils had only taken one point from nine on offer before spoiling Nuno Espirito Santo’s leaving party at Molineux, and their most recent Europa League fixture also ended in defeat to Roma, but the damage had already been done during a domineering first leg at Old Trafford.

The Red Devils have undoubtedly been the favourites to go all the way in the Europa League since their ill-fated Champions League run came to an end, and they could now follow in the footsteps of long-time rivals Chelsea, who in 2013 became the first and only English side to win the Europa League after dropping out of Europe’s elite competition.

Solskjaer had steered his side to five wins from seven knockout matches before their recent defeat at Roma - an impressive feat considering that Real Sociedad and AC Milan are no pushovers - and a quarter-final success over Granada means that United certainly know how to get the better of Spanish sides on the continental stage.

Solskjaer still has his doubters, whose voices will certainly not be silenced if their trophy drought continues this week, but lifting the European trophy aloft should signal to the discontent fans - who continue to make their feelings towards the much-maligned Glazers known - that he is the right man to restore United to their former glories.

The 2013 Norwegian Cup represents Solskjaer’s only honour during his relatively brief managerial career so far, and adding to that modest haul will be no easy feat against Europa League aficionado Emery, who himself will endeavour to steer Villarreal into a new era with their first-ever major trophy 98 years after their inception.

May 26, 2021, The UEFA Europa League final takes place between Spanish La Liga outfit Villarreal and English Premier League heavyweights Manchester United in Gdansk, Poland. Graphic shows match previews, previous head-to-head records, with team and player statistics. [Photo: UEFA]
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