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Wednesday’s Europa League final will see continental heritage pitted against relative newcomers as Manchester United face off against Villarreal in Gdansk. The latter are competing in their first ever European final while United are seasoned competitors at this stage of the season, going for their seventh major honor and another Europa League trophy to follow the one they raised in 2021.
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But in the dugouts, the roles are reversed as Unai Emery chases his fourth Europa League whilst Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks for a first trophy as United manager. Will that lack of experience count for anything in a final where both teams could be missing key players? Let’s make some predictions:
What little hope Solskjaer might have had that Harry Maguire would be available for the Europa League final seemed to vanish on Tuesday night when the club captain headed down the tunnel at the Stadion Miejski without so much as getting his kit on to take part in training. This game has seen miraculous recoveries in the past — two years ago N’Golo Kante seemed certain to miss out for Chelsea against Arsenal when he limped out of the final pre-match session before a superb display in Baku — but with the European Championships on the horizon it may be too much of a risk for Maguire to take to the field against Villarreal tomorrow.
Equally if there is even the slightest hope that Maguire can play for United it will be hard for Solskjaer to resist the temptation. He may have his flaws but there are few players as crucial to the Red Devils’ play as their captain. The defensive side is naturally worth addressing but from the outset it should certainly be noted how vital the center back is in effectively advancing the ball up the pitch whether through his passing or his propensity to step into midfield.
Villarreal is a town of 50,577 people. Manchester United’s stadium alone holds 74,140 people. Villarreal are playing in their first ever cup final; Manchester United have won 42 major trophies. Villarreal have never been this far in Europe before, breaking down barriers when they got through the semifinal phase at which they had fallen four times. Manchester United have actually won all three European competitions: the Europa League, the old Cup Winners Cup, and the European Cup. Three times.
But Villarreal’s manager does not fear Wednesday’s final in Gdansk, Poland, and there is no feeling of inferiority. Nor, though, is there any pretence of equality. Instead, there is ambition. A recognition of the team standing before them, the enormity of the club they face, is a good thing: far from provoking fear or a complex, it’s a symbol of how far Villarreal have come.
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It is also, Emery says, a symbol of the competition itself and how far it is come — a competition he has done much to defend and project, and not just by winning it, almost as if it was his mission. It is one he returns to repeatedly. Listening to him in conversation with Fernando Palomo for his podcast, “Nos Ponemos las Pilas,” you genuinely believe Emery would rather play United than someone smaller and easier to beat. Because this is not just about the club; it is about the competition, and one that he is associated with perhaps more than anyone anywhere in the world. It feels right, somehow, that he should be in the final again.
For all that Emery was criticised, blamed and even laughed at in London, this is not some dramatic recovery from what happened when he was managing Arsenal. Nor is it him driven by vindication or a point to prove. He didn’t frame the semifinal victory over his former club in those terms even when he would have been entitled to do so. Instead, this is just him getting on with the work; Emery doing what Emery does.
Emery is a five-time Europa League finalist (as of 9 p.m. Wednesday); he is also a three-time champion, winning it with Sevilla in three straight seasons. To listen to him talk is to hear how this competition contributed to making him, and to hear how he has contributed to making it, how he continues to. It has become his place, and that seems to bring a desire to protect and promote it. To fall for its charms. To introduce others to it. The fact that Manchester United await on Wednesday demonstrates that this is a place the big clubs embrace now, he says. In part, to feel what he felt.
It is what Villarreal wanted to feel too: they have spent 14 of the past 20 years in Europe, have finished second in La Liga, and are fully established as one of the strongest, most stable sides in Spain. But they still haven’t won anything in their history and, at long last, they wanted to. And so, they turned to Emery.
Villarreal is the third club Emery leads into the Europa League final, but the connection is something he admits he learned, and experienced, at Sevilla, who’d won it twice before he arrived at the Sanchez Pizjuan. He recalls them telling him that Champions League qualification, as he had achieved at Valencia, was fine and all, but that nothing matches the feeling of actually winning something and the Europa League offers that.
Soon, he discovered that they were right, winning the competition in 2014. He enjoyed it so much, he did it again in 2015. And in 2016. Three years after that he returned to the final with Arsenal, only to be beaten by Chelsea. Now here he is again, in search of that feeling. One he wants to share.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
ESPN: So, what is it about you and the Europa League?
Emery: This is a very nice competition that has grown a lot, always in the shadow of the Champions League, as a second competition, one that, thanks to teams like Valencia, Sevilla, Arsenal and Villarreal this season, I have been able to enjoy. There have been three titles with Sevilla, a final with Arsenal and this one now with Villarreal. All that experience that I have gathered playing in it, playing in those finals, I have tried to transmit and communicate here at Villarreal.
This is a club with a credibility, consistency. At the institutional level, it is a very solid project: very stable, very reliable. In sporting terms, they had played four semifinals — one in the Champions League vs. Arsenal, and then in the Europa League vs. Valencia, Porto and Liverpool — but they had failed to make that final leap. They had always been stopped at the semifinal. This year, we had the challenge of taking that extra step, and we have managed to do that.
The satisfaction for me is having been able to contribute with my work and my experience, but above all, I’m grateful to be at a club that is ambitious, that has good players, and has been able to compete in a competition that in recent years has seen teams like Arsenal, Man United and Liverpool compete. Those are clubs that lived off the Champions League and didn’t always value this second competition so much. But now you see this final: we play Manchester United. When I was at Arsenal, we played Chelsea. That’s not so different to the Champions League now. We’re fortunate to be here, and to be able to represent Spanish football in that final.
What have you learned from Villarreal?
I learn daily with young, hungry players, potentially players of a high level. Some of them are already established, like Pau [Torres] who is with the [Spain] national team. That gives me the enthusiasm to keep working, to push them.
What do I learn? To live with them daily, to try to make them better players and people, to seek connections on a footballing and an emotional level, to find a way — in good and bad moments. To find balance. That’s how I see my role as a coach: to contribute, to learn, to improve.