By James Reid
In English football, the Europa League has consistently got a bit of a battering in recent years. Rival fans often deride those who must play their football on Thursday, rather than Tuesday or Wednesday nights, often adding in reference to some supposedly undesirable destination to boot.
Indeed, many fans are quick to inform the rest of us just how much of a burden it is for their clubs to compete in European competition, a feat many clubs will never even come close to achieving, often actively wanting their teams to avoid qualifying for the tournament.
It is not just the fans either. Clubs themselves regularly play heavily weakened sides, particularly in the group stages with a distinct air of not really wanting to be there, despite the fact that many boast less than incredible European records to support the notion that they are too big for the Europa League.
Yet the reality is that it’s actually quite good. In fact, it’s very good. For all the negativity it often attracts on English shores, the Europa League is a really exciting tournament year after year, with high quality sides competing against one another despite the fact that many would much rather prefer to be in the Champions League.
It turns out, contrary to what some in modern football would have you believe, that winning things is actually a lot of fun, even if it’s not always the very highest competitions football has to offer.
This is something English clubs appear to have perhaps increasingly realised in recent years, with United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool all appearing in the final at least once since 2016 along with a number of other semi-final appearances.
As Jose Mourinho led Manchester United to their first ever Europa League triumph in 2017 of course United fans would have preferred it to have been “Old Big Ears”, the trophy they last lifted in 2008, but it was still celebrated like almost any other trophy.
Yes it didn’t have the same prestige as their three European Cup/Champions League victories, but what many came to realise is that actually didn’t matter.
On Wednesday night, United have the chance to experience those feelings all over again. Having come so close last year, only to be knocked out by Europa League specialists Sevilla and having experienced a relative dearth of trophies in recent years, this is a chance to get back to the winning ways of old.
In their way stand Spanish side Villarreal, who strike a stark contrast to their opponents. While United boast one of the most illustrious histories in European football and see Wednesday’s final as a springboard back to past glories, this is undoubtedly the biggest game in the Yellow Submarine’s history.
The club were only promoted to La Liga for the first time in 1998 and were promoted from the second division as recently as 2012, while they have never won La Liga, compared to United’s 20 Premier League titles.
Should they win, they will take the trophy home to a city of 50,000 people, all of whom could be easily accommodated in United’s nearly 75,000 capacity stadium, Old Trafford.
They do, however, have European pedigree having reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2006 only to be knocked out by Arsenal, with the legendary Juan Román Riquelme famously missing a last-minute penalty.
Make no mistake though, tonight is the biggest night of all.
They are led by former Arsenal boss Unai Emery, who won the competition three times in a row with Sevilla. Despite having a largely torrid time in England thanks to fairly insipid football and being mocked for his inability to, but insistence on, saying good evening – I’d like to see you do press conferences in Spanish – Emery is a top manager with perhaps the best track record in this competition, something that should concern United.
While on paper United look to have the stronger squad, Villarreal have enough to potentially cause an upset too, especially over just 90 minutes.
At the back, 24-year-old Pau Torres is likely to start for Spain at this summer’s Euros while the seemingly evergreen Raúl Albiol, now 35, will captain the side alongside him.
In front, Daniel Parejo – perhaps one of Europe’s finest passers of the ball – will likely sit alongside club legend, and qualified teacher, Manu Trigueros with former Spurs and Watford midfielder Étienne Capoue in between to provide a bit of bite.
Up front it is all really about one man; Gerard Moreno. With winger Samuel Chukwueze a doubt for the final, all eyes will be on the 29-year-old Villarreal youth product to provide the goals.
Moreno’s career has burst into life in recent seasons, with this campaign his best yet recording 23 La Liga goals on top of eight in the Europa League, as well as recording the most assists in the Villarreal squad this season with seven.
It is the kind of form that has seen a call-up to the Spain squad where he has not disappointed either, scoring five goals in just 10 caps, and he will be hoping to lead the line for La Furia Roja this summer.
United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær hoping that centre-back Harry Maguire will be back from injury to combat Villarreal’s star man, though it seems to be a race against time.
Nevertheless, the Norwegian will be hoping that the strength of his squad elsewhere will be enough to deliver United’s second Europa League victory.
Going forward, United have a wealth of options with Edison Cavani in particular hitting a rich vein of form towards the end of the season, while Mason Greenwood has looked more and more like the top player he is predicted to be.
In midfield all eyes will naturally be on Bruno Fernandes who has been so central to everything United have done this season, though the bigger decision lies with which other midfielders Solskjaer chooses to play.
United have consistently deployed Fred and Scott McTominay – or “McFred” – in a double pivot much to the chagrin of supporters who have been frustrated at its lack of creativity and overly defensive and cautious nature.
It also often sees Paul Pogba pushed out wide, far from his best position, and how Solskjaer chooses to set up in the middle of the park will be key to stopping Parejo in particular.
The former Valencia midfielder has recorded some of the best numbers in Europe for progressive passes and shot-creating actions this season and stopping his supply to the likes of Moreno will be crucial.
It sets up what should be an intriguing, and hopefully exciting final with both sides having plenty riding on it.
For Villarreal it would be the finest day in their history, as well as secure Champions League football next season for just the fourth time.
For United it would mark the first trophy in the tenure of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and, they will hope, a return to trophy-winning ways for a club that has lost its way in recent years.
United will be favourites on paper, but Emery’s men certainly have enough to spring a potential surprise, making Wednesday night anybody’s game.
Image: Diego Sideburns via Flickr