The most important match in European football this week is almost upon us as Manchester United face Villarreal in the Europa League final.
It’s been a long road here. The journey to Ole Gunnar Solskjær‘s first final as United boss started on the final day of the 2019/20 Premier League season, where Bruno Fernandes and Jesse Lingard sealed a 2-0 win against at the time top 4 rivals Leicester City. This victory allowed United to finish 3rd place and be drawn in to what was later dubbed the “group of death” alongside PSG, RB Leipzig and İstanbul Başakşehir in the 2020/21 Champions League group stages.
United’s Champions League adventure started off brilliantly, with back to back wins against PSG and Leipzig, with Marcus Rashford stealing the show in both games by a winning goal away in Paris and then following that up with his first ever senior hattrick against Leipzig at Old Trafford. After 2 game weeks, United were sitting pretty at the top of group H, and all there was left to do was secure 4 points in their remaining 4 games to seal qualification, with bottom of the group and 0 point the opponent for United’s next two games. Typically for Manchester United though, they made it a million times harder than it should have been with by losing 2-1 away to Istanbul, conceding two extremely disorganised and sloppy goals in the process.Embed from Getty Images
The return game at Old Trafford was a much better performance, with United winning 4-1 and Bruno Fernandes scoring an absolute thunderbolt volley, which meant United only had to gain 1 more point in their next two fixtures to seal qualification. The next match was at home to PSG, and unlike the first leg, Brazillian star Neymar Jr was on fire that night and scored two goals to win PSG the match 3-1, and the final game of the group stage did not fair much better. Against Leipzig, United went 2 goals down inside 15 minutes, and conceded a 3rd just before the 70 minute mark. Despite two late goals from Fernandes and Paul Pogba (and Pogba going close again in the final seconds), it was not enough to crawl back a draw and United were eliminated from the Champions League group stages, and banished down to the Europa League.
With the European mood low at the club, United were blessed with yet another hard European match-up, having been given a knock-out tie against then Spanish league leaders Real Sociedad. Having recruited Manchester City legend David Silva in the summer, Sociedad were looking to be another tough opponent for the Red Devils, but that was suprisingly not the case. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, United were not allowed to travel to Spain, and so the first leg was played in Turin. In Italy, United put on a stunning counter attacking display with Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Daniel James helping United secure a 4-0 lead in the first leg, and it was plain sailing from there. United drew the second leg 0-0, and were through to the round of 16.Embed from Getty Images
As the theme has been this season, United were matched up with yet another top European club in the next round, this time the resurgant AC Milan. This tie was not plain sailing. After an initial 45 minutes that saw Anthony Martial ruled out for the rest of the season, it took a wonderful goal from youngster Amad to put United in the lead with a beautiful looping backwards header… thing. The tie was dampened at the death as Milan pulled back an equaliser, however a brilliant substitute performance from Paul Pogba made sure that United went through, as he scored the only goal to make the tie 2-1 on aggregate.Embed from Getty Images
The quarter-final came against Granda, the second of 3 Spanish sides United have and will face in the competition, and that tie was a rather tame afair as United won each leg 2-0, meaning a 4-0 victory across the two legs and a pass in to the semi-final, where United would face AS Roma.
The semi-final tie against Roma will go down as arguably one of the most crazy ties United have had in recent years. United started brilliantly in the first half, winning and scoring a penalty inside 10 minutes, but then the side completely collapsed and conceded two goals to go in to half time 2-1 down. In previous years, this may have spelt the end of the European season, but this time, United (and namely Fernandes & Edinson Cavani) thought differently. In the second half, those two combined brilliantly to grab 2 goals and 2 assists each across the 90 minutes to help United put FIVE goals past Roma, and all but seal a ticket to the 2021 Europa League final in Poland… or so everyone thought.Embed from Getty Images
As has been the case many times this season, United have had to fight for their wins. The second leg saw United yet again go 1-0 up, but then concede 2 goals to put a sudden worry inside the head of every United fan. If not for the heroics of David de Gea, United may have been more than just 2 goals down when Cavani grabbed his 2nd goal of the game, and although Alex Telles also compounded worry by scoring an own goal towards the end, a 3-2 win was not enough for Roma to overturn their first leg deficit and United reached their 2nd Europa League final in 4 years.Embed from Getty Images
The big upset for United is that Harry Maguire will most likely not be fit for the final. Solskjær has been clear that he will wait until the day of the game to declare Maguire fit or not for the final, however as recent events have shown, Maguire is likely not going to be fit to start.
In other news, Anthony Martial and Phil Jones are also not fit enough to make it, however Daniel James has recently returned from injury and will be fit to start, just as he did against Wolves on Sunday.
For Villarreal, dangerman Samuel Chukwueze looks to be in doubt. Although Unai Emery has refused to rule him out of the final, he did not play any part in Villarreal’s latest match (a 2-1 loss to Real Madrid), and so therefore is not likely to make the cut for the final. Centre-back and Tottenham Hotspur loanee Juan Foyth is also a doubt for the final.
One to Watch
Widely seen as the talisman for United in the last 15 months, Bruno Fernandes will be the player to watch for this final. He has been criticised before about his lack of “important” goals and assists, and what better way to silence those critics with a top notch performance in a European final to win his first trophy with the club.
With Harry Maguire most likely absent, Bruno Fernandes is probably going to be the one who takes on the responsibility of being Manchester United captain, as he seems to be the de facto captain of the club when Maguire isn’t playing. He is a leader, and if he plays well, United will more than likely find their hands on the trophy come the end of the match.Embed from Getty Images
A Stepping stone?
Solskjær has mentioned many times in the last few weeks that this Europa League final can be viewed as a stepping stone from past woes to a brighter future. After 5 attempts, United managed to win their first semi-final under Solskjær, and as mentioned before, may therefore win their first trophy with the Norweigan in charge. Having secured back-to-back top 4 finishes in the league for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club, there has been solid and tangable progress for what feels like the first time in a decade, and a trophy to go along with this would do wonders for the players and the staff, as it would be living proof that they are mentally strong enough to win trophies.