Ole Gunnar Solskjaer targets his first major title as Manchester United manager in Wednesday’s Europa League final, but Unai Emery has proved to be a dab hand in this tournament. Villarreal’s commander-in-chief will contest this fixture for the fifth time in his career, having won three Europa League crowns during his time as Sevilla boss (2014-16).
This year’s finalists have failed to produce a goal in 360 minutes previously played against one another, seeing out four bore draws in as many Champions League meetings to date. A tiebreaker of some form will be required to separate the pair even if they replicate that result in Gdańsk where the Europa League will welcome either a newcomer or a familiar face to the throne.
Tensions are pulsating in Poland ahead of United’s return to the Europa League final, four years on from the Red Devils beating Ajax to win this trophy (or the UEFA Cup) for the first time in their history. A return to the Champions League next season is guaranteed for Solskjaer & Co. regardless of Wednesday’s outcome.
United have secured back-to-back top-four finishes in the Premier League for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, and second place was theirs prior to Sunday’s 2-1 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers:
Solskjaer took over at Old Trafford in December 2018 and has steadily revived expectations at his old stomping ground, 90 minutes from collecting his first piece of silverware in the hot seat. The Norwegian delivered a statement of intent following United’s last home game of the season—a 1-1 draw at home to Fulham—and backed his side to deliver in their European showdown:
Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford sparkle among a more star-studded United lineup, but Emery's outfit have proved themselves able to cut through the Europa League competition with deadly efficiency.
The situation is significantly more desperate for Villarreal, whose seventh-place finish in La Liga intensifies the pressure to win in midweek if they’re to feature among Europe’s elite next term. Failure to win in Gdańsk would see the Yellow Submarine dive into the inaugural Europa Conference League instead, representing a potential loss of prize money in the tens of millions.
United are sweating on the fitness of captain Harry Maguire, whose recent ankle injury saw him confined to a protective boot only a week before the final. The England defender was named in the 26-man squad travelling to Gdańsk but still has to prove his health if he’s to make the cut for Solskjaer’s 23 on matchday.
Samuel Chukwueze is the major question mark for Villarreal after he was injured during the semi-final win over Arsenal, with Carlos Bacca in contention to replace him should the Nigeria international miss out. Argentinian defender Juan Foyth—on loan from Tottenham—is also a doubt for Emery’s side.
A run of only three wins from United’s last eight games is cause for concern, especially against a Villarreal team that’s still yet to suffer defeat in 14 European outings this season. Victory in Poland would see Emery become the most decorated manager in Europa League/UEFA Cup history with his fourth title, while Solskjaer is still seeking his first step on the continental ladder.