Graham Hunter considers who will come out on top as irresistible force meets immovable object in the UEFA Europa League decider.
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Warning: Finals are notoriously unpredictable so if you’re a superstitious Manchester United fan and this preview feels worryingly positive or you’re a devout admirer of the Yellow Submarine and it reads too pessimistically – don’t worry.
However exhaustively or accurately a final is previewed there will, always, be events, protagonists and twists of fate which surge into the excitement with a will of their own.
At face value, nevertheless here are a couple of the key points upon which this fascinating match may well turn.
Irresistible force versus immovable object
United have played Spanish opposition twice in this tournament so far – eliminating Real Sociedad and Granada 4-0 on aggregate each time. That maintained a steady stream of goals that has swept United through the knockout stage, scoring 18 in eight outings en route to Gdańsk.
Are Villarreal a thornier rival? The Yellow Submarine haven’t conceded in their last five UEFA Europa League matches outside Spain. Impressive. Gero Rulli, Unai Emery's regular goalkeeper in this competition, has looked slightly short of match practice recently and he has no room for error here.
Edinson Cavani has been extraordinary since finding full fitness at United – the Uruguayan has scored or made a goal every 31 minutes in the UEFA Europa League knockout stage!
Whether the Argentinian or the Uruguayan imposes himself will be central to which side lifts the trophy.
Battle of the Coaches
Unai Emery is a phenomenon. Only way to describe it.
The only coach to win this competition three times on the bounce, with Sevilla, the Basque also guided Arsenal to the 2019 decider and now becomes the first coach to reach five finals in a single UEFA club competition. It elevates him above a fantastic quartet who manager four: Sir Alex Ferguson, Carlo Ancelotti, Marcello Lippi and Miguel Muñoz. Quite a group to overtake.
Previous wins does not guarantee Emery a fear factor for Ole Gunnar Solskjær, or his team, but it’s a massive resource of experience and know-how. Of course, he’s up against a guy who has steadily improved United since taking over in late 2018; his team are ultra-motivated. "Last season's disappointment against Sevilla was really, really, really high," Solskjær told me. He doesn't want to experience it again.
Emery is not the only coach with an impressive UEFA Europa League record, too. In two seasons, Solskjær has guided United to the semi-finals and now the final.
There Will Be Goals
Each of the previous four contests between United and Villarreal ended goalless. That surely cannot happen here given that Gerard Moreno, Bruno Fernandes, Paco Álcacer and Marcus Rashford have between them scored 29 goals in UEFA club competition this season.