The Stadion Miejski in Gdansk, Poland, was witness to one of the most equally-matched and tightly-contested European cup finals in years. English giants Manchester United faced off against the perennial Spanish underdogs in the 2021 Europa League Final, the second-tier international club competition in Europe. A tense 90 minutes resulted in a 1-1 score; extra time followed, but no goals came. After an even more intense penalty shootout, Villarreal shocked the world as they overcame their opponents 11-10 on penalties, winning their first ever trophy in the club’s history.
Before meeting each other in the final, Manchester United and Villarreal had proven to be the two best teams in the tournament, especially as the latter stages came around. Villarreal was drawn into a manageable group alongside Sivasspor (Turkey), Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel) and Qarabag (Azerbaijan). Villarreal lived up to their expectations, though, effortlessly topping the group, winning five of the six matches while drawing the remaining one, all while scoring 17 goals, conceding five.
In the knockout stages, Villarreal played Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg in the round of 32, where they easily beat them 4-1 on aggregate. Following this, they defeated Ukrainian team, Dynamo Kyiv on aggregate 4-0 after a pair of 2-0 victories in the round of 16.
In the quarterfinals, Villarreal’s opponent was Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb, who themselves were a dark-horse contender this term. Despite putting up a good fight, Dinamo Zagreb was eliminated by the Spaniards, 3-1 on aggregate.
Come to the semifinals, Villarreal faced off against historic English titans Arsenal, who were desperately trying to win this tournament, as it was their only realistic path to the Champions League after having a poor season. But yet again, Villarreal would emerge victorious with a narrow 2-1 aggregate win, sending El Submarino Amarillo to their first major European Cup Final.
Manchester United, on the other hand, had a very different path to the final. They started the season in the Champions League, getting drawn into the group of death with Paris Saint-Germain (France), RB Leipzig (Germany) and Istanbul Basaksehir (Turkey). Despite a few good results early on, Man United stumbled a bit and finished third in the group, sending them down to the Europa League knockout stages.
In the round of 32, Manchester United lined up against Real Sociedad from Spain. A smashing 4-0 victory in the first leg and a 0-0 drawn in the second meant they passed with ease to play AC Milan in the round of 16. In the first leg, Man United was held to a 1-1 draw with the historic Italian super-club, but a razor-thin 1-0 triumph in the second saw the Englishmen progress.
Man United’s quarterfinals opponent was another Spanish underdog team, Granada, whose valiant display was no match for Man United, seeing the Andalusian club lose 4-0 on aggregate.
In the semifinals, Man United encountered another Italian team, Roma, known for their occasional poor performances in Europe. The stereotype came true as they were battered 6-2 by Man United in the first leg, and while Roma would in the first leg in the return fixture 3-2, Man United went to the final with an 8-5 aggregate victory.
As for their league form, Villarreal had a decent season by their standards, finishing in seventh place in the La Liga table. On the other hand, Manchester United started the season very poorly before getting their act together at the midway point. While they never threatened champion Manchester City’s spot at the top, Man United did comfortably finish in second place. Both Villarreal and Manchester United had played each four times before this match, with each game ending in a 0-0 draw, though these games occurred over 12 years ago.
When comparing the two teams heading into the final, both were very deserving of their spot in the showpiece match. Manchester United brushed aside numerous good teams, scoring many goals in the process. And while Villarreal isn’t as free-scoring and had slightly weaker opponents, they still dominated every match they played, looking very organized and well-drilled.
Saying that, Manchester United was still seen as clear favorites given the player quality and European experience gap. Man United are of the biggest and most successful teams in football history, winning at least 66 major trophies, while Villarreal had yet to win a single trophy going into this match. Similarly, Villarreal by no means has a bad squad; Man United simply has many better players and more prominent stars.
However, the opposite is true when it comes to each team’s head coach. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer manages Man United, and though he has proven to be a competent coach, he is still very early in his managing career. In all honestly, the only reason he was given this job was because of his legendary status as a former Manchester United player. Villarreal, on the other hand, has Unai Emery, who is one of the most decorated managers in the current game. Emery even won the Europa League three times already with Sevilla.
As the match kicked off in Gdansk, most expected a tight game, even if Manchester United were favorites to win. And if this match was anything, it was close and equally matched. In the first half, Man United took control of the ball and pressed Villarreal into their half. However, Villarreal’s brick wall of defense was rock solid throughout the entire match, forcing their opponents to take all their shots from far out, rarely troubling the keeper. While Man United was struggling to create clear chances, Villarreal knew that they did not have the pace to continually hit on the counter, so they primarily relied on set-pieces for their opportunities, to which they created several.
30 minutes into the match, and this strategy paid off: Villarreal was awarded a free-kick outside Man United’s 18-yard box. After midfield maestro Dani Parejo sent a world-class looping cross into the box, akin to that of a heat-seeking missile, Villarreal’s star striker Gerard Moreno was able to evade his marker and poke the ball into the net, sending his team up 1-0.
Chances in the first half were few and far between, and more of the same carried on into the second as Manchester United were still able to find that creative spark, primarily due to Villarreal’s incredible defense. However, football is an unpredictable sport often based solely on luck, which Man United capitalized on.
After avoiding threatening Villarreal’s goal, the English club was awarded a corner about 10 minutes into the second half. Luke Shaw’s initial cross was cleared away by Villarreal’s acting captain, Raul Albiol, but then the ball trickled down to Marcus Rashford, who sent a venomous low shot towards goal from far out. Luckily for his team, Rashford’s shot pinged around in the box before kindly falling in front of veteran-striker, Edinson Cavani who smashed in the rebound, tying the game 1-1.
Afterward, the momentum slightly swung in Man United’s favor, though they were far from dominating the match. Neither team had any clear-cut chances on goal throughout the rest of the match except for a quick header from Cavani, which was expertly blocked by star center-back Pau Torres, who himself had a decent shot on goal following a corner shortly after.
But with nothing left to separate the teams, the match went into extra time for an additional 30 minutes of play. As fatigue started to settle in, along with a fear of conceding the first goal, nothing of note happened in the two periods of extra time besides a half-chance shot from Villarreal’s Paco Alcacer, which sailed far over the crossbar.
After 120 minutes of football could not decide a winner, the match went to a penalty shootout to crown the winner dramatically. While the game during the regular time was not as eventful, the penalty shootout was the complete opposite, proving to be one of the most exciting penalty shootouts in recent history. Gerard Moreno was first to shoot for Villarreal, and he scored with a calm penalty before Juan Mata matched that with a straightforward penalty. Out of the five initial penalty takers, all five impressively scored: Gerard, Dani Raba, Alcacer, Alberto Moreno, and Parejo for Villarreal, and Mata, Alex Telles, Bruno Fernandes, Rashford and Cavani for Manchester United, sending it to sudden death. As penalties continued, both goalkeepers, Geronimo Rulli and David de Gea, had several penalties that they should have saved, but overall, most of the penalties were exceptional.
The match went to sudden death, and the quality of shots meant that each outfield player had to take a penalty, to which each scored too, leaving it all up to the goalkeepers. Geronimo Rulli, technically Villarreal’s backup keeper, smashed his shot into the corner, meaning Manchester United’s world-class shot-stopper, David de Gea, had to score or his team would lose. As de Gea stepped up to take his shot, Rulli was able to easily read his run-up, correctly guessing where he would shoot before batting away de Gea’s shot and clinching the Europa League for Villarreal.
After an 11-10 score in the shootout, Villarreal was victorious in Gdansk as deserved champions of the 2021 Europa League. As heartbreaking as it was for David de Gea, one could barely fault a goalkeeper for missing a penalty given the infrequent circumstances where they would ever need to.
When club captain Mario Gaspar lifted the trophy and celebrated the victory with Villarreal fans in the stadium, history was made with the first ever trophy in Villarreal’s cabinet. And the small club earned it, playing some great football this year. In this match specifically, Rulli was great in the penalty shootout, and Gerard did his job to score. Still, other players played great, including Parejo, Yeremy, Pau Torres, and the entire defensive line.
As for Manchester United, they will be very disappointed they did not win, even if they also played a good match. Both Edinson Cavani and Scott McTominay had good performances, but Paul Pogba and the forwards like Rashford and Mason Greenwood were a bit lackluster on the night.
This victory, though, is also very significant for other reasons as well. Firstly, this is manager Unai Emery’s fourth Europa League trophy, making him the manager with the most Europa League trophies after he won 2014, 2015, and 2016 titles with Sevilla before this year’s with Villarreal. In fact, he even reached the 2019 Final with Arsenal but lost to Chelsea. For a manager whose reputation was damaged after relatively disappointing tenures with PSG and Arsenal, Emery proved again to the football world that he is a quality manager and serial winner.
Villarreal’s achievement is even more remarkable when you consider how much of an underdog they are. Despite coming from a city with less than 52,000 citizens, Villarreal remains one of the best teams in Spain and Europe now. By comparison, other elite Spanish clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona come from cities with close to a million people. Given the recent chaos with the proposed European Super League, Villarreal’s victory was a statement win, as these kinds of underdog stories would never occur in the European Super League monopoly. Given how well-run Villarreal is as a small football club, they serve as an example to Villarreal in the football world.