Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s quest for a first trophy as Manchester United manager goes on after a dramatic 11-10 penalty shootout defeat against Villarreal in the Europa League final following a 1-1 draw in Gdansk, Poland.
In front of 9,500 supporters, Gerard Moreno met Daniel Parejo’s free-kick to steer home his 30th goal in all competitions to give the Spanish side a first-half lead (29).
United, who won the competition under Jose Mourinho in 2017, were indebted once again to the razor-sharp finishing of Edinson Cavani, who struck his 16th goal in his last 11 Europa League starts to haul his side level (55).
It was one of just two shots on target from United as extra time failed to illuminate a poor contest, but Geronimo Rulli would prove the hero during a pulsating shootout, first converting his own penalty before keeping out De Gea’s effort as Unai Emery clinched a fourth Europa League title.
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Solskjaer, who famously struck with virtually the last kick against Bayern Munich to win the Champions League for United on this day in 1999, spoke about the pressure and expectation to claim his first piece of silverware as United boss, 22 years on from that fateful night.
Villarreal arrived in Gdansk unbeaten in their 14 Europa League matches, winning 12, while it was 20 years ago that an English side vanquished an opponent from La Liga in a European final – losing all nine previous occasions dating back to Liverpool’s UEFA Cup triumph over Alaves in 2001.
Sir Alex Ferguson sat watching on in the stands at the Polsat Plus Arena. As did Wayne Rooney, the last United captain to lift a trophy, and they would have been encouraged by the start.
Marcus Rashford, one of just two survivors from the United side that beat Ajax in the final four years ago, teed up Scott McTominay for an early shot from the edge of the box but he dragged his effort well wide.
Solskjaer’s men had already knocked out two Spanish sides – Real Sociedad and Granada – en route to the final, and Villarreal were struggling to get out of their own half in the opening quarter of an hour.
Emery, who won it three times in a row with Sevilla, continued to look agitated as Luke Shaw collected Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s cross with his fizzed shot just evading the studs of Bruno Fernandes.
Villarreal absorbed the early threat and began to impose themselves via a spate of Daniel Parejo corners. On one such occasion when United failed to clear, Carlos Bacca’s dexterous rabona cross was headed over Pau Torres.
Emery had shown no hesitation in calling on Yeremi Pino; aged 18 years and 218 days, he became the youngest ever Spanish player to start a major European final, breaking the previous record held by Iker Casillas, and he fired a warning sign with a snapshot moments before United fell behind.
Moreno hung on Shaw’s shoulder before his darting run inside pinned Victor Lindelof as the striker stuck out a leg to meet Parejo’s free-kick and stab his shot beyond De Gea at the far post. It was his 30th goal in all competitions this season and perhaps the easiest as the inquest began into United’s slack defending.
Solskjaer stepped out from his technical area, a forlorn figure with his arms outstretched, as he berated an increasingly dispiriting opening period which very nearly had a happy ending as Mason Greenwood escaped Alfonso Pedraza down the right with his firm cross deflecting off Raul Albiol into the grateful arms of Geronimo Rulli.
A hallmark of United’s season had been overcoming setbacks; collecting an unrivalled 31 points from losing positions in the Premier League, and Solskjaer called on his players to show their resolve once more having produced a measly xG of 0.09 before the restart.
Villarreal had only conceded two goals away from home in the competition, however, and threatened a second on 48 minutes as a slip by Eric Bailly very nearly allowed Moreno to scramble the ball home from close range.
Sky Sports’ Nick Wright commented: “Another set piece causes mayhem in the Manchester United box. They are missing Maguire, undoubtedly, but defending set pieces has been a problem for this side all season.”
Villarreal had clearly done their homework, as they survived a faint penalty appeal and a VAR check when Greenwood went down holding his foot following a challenge from Pedraza. There was more intensity to United’s play, and they would draw level on 55 minutes.
Shaw’s corner was cleared only as far as Marcus Rashford, whose mishit ricocheted kindly for Cavani to instinctively finish. Once more, referee Clement Turpin consulted VAR Francois Letexier for offside, but the goal stood.
Cavani had done extremely well to get back onside as yellow shirts flooded out of the box, and United went in search of an instant second as Fernandes struck a loose ball across goal, flashing inches away from the predatory Cavani.
Villarreal were beginning to tire as Rashford scuffed a glorious chance wide of Rulli’s post from Fernandes’ cross on 70 minutes, although the linesman’s flag spared the Englishman’s blushes, with Torres then in the right place to block Cavani’s improvised header from Shaw’s wayward shot.
Villarreal’s second-half forays were sporadic with Moreno missing the target from distance – their first attempt since the break to United’s six. The momentum was with United as McTominay drove them forward in search of a late winner, feeding Shaw down the left before his cross was headed over by Paul Pogba.
It was Villarreal’s turn to show their frustration when Torres failed to bend his shot from Mario Gaspar’s cut-back inside the post as Turpin signalled for extra time.
Emery had made five alterations up until this point while Solskjaer still had all five of his substitutes to call upon. It felt somewhat strange given the intensity of the opening 15 minutes of additional time as one of those Villarreal reinforcements, former Liverpool defender Alberto Moreno, sliced a shot wide from the angle.
The game was developing into a war of attrition, with Paco Alcacer’s rushed finish the last act before Fred was introduced for the fading Greenwood. The momentum had shifted back to Emery’s side but with their opponents subdued, penalties felt an inevitability.
United had experienced just why Villarreal had gone the whole competition unbeaten; the last time the Europa League was decided by a shootout was back in 2014, when Emery was manager of Sevilla – overcoming Benfica 4-2 following a goalless draw.
De Gea hadn’t saved a Premier League penalty for six-and-a-half years, and he didn’t come close to keeping out any of Villarreal’s efforts in a thrilling shootout that was decided in dramatic circumstances as following 20 successful spot-kicks, Rulli blasted home his penalty before saving from De Gea.