Manchester United’s European campaign fell at the final hurdle as they were beaten 11-10 on penalties by Villarreal in Gdansk.
It was early domination from the off from Manchester United, with their Spanish opponents seemingly content to sit back and frustrate the pre-match favourites.
Having soaked up the early pressure, Unai Emery’s side would take the lead just before the half-hour mark, Gerard Moreno making the most of some slack Manchester United defending from a free-kick, the Spain international bursting beyond the marking of Victor Lindelof to poke the ball home for his 30th strike of the season.
For all of their possession, United lacked creative spark, as the Premier League runners up found it hard to find spaces against the well-drilled opponents.
However, United have made a habit of coming from behind this season, particularly in the second half of matches, and 10 minutes into the second half the Red Devils would draw level from what is becoming an increasingly familiar source. A corner from the left was cleared by Villarreal, but only to Marcus Rashford on the edge of the box. His strike was blocked, though the ball ultimately dropped kindly for veteran striker, Edinson Cavani, who stroked home in what was his first-ever appearance in a European final.
After the equaliser, it was all United, though they still really didn’t test goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli all too frequently, with the game heading into an additional 30 minutes of extra time.
Unai Emery had made all five permitted changes in regular time, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer didn’t make his first change until the 100th minute, and Villarreal noticeably looked fresher although in the added period, although neither side were able to make a breakthrough in what was a final that will not live long in the memory.
While the game wasn’t up to much, the penalty shoot-out certainly provided some entertainment, with both sides matching each other penalty for penalty. With the scores 10-10, it was the turn of the goalkeepers to take a spot-kick against each other. Rulli despatched his before proving to be the hero, keeping out David de Gea’s tame effort to hand Unai Emery a record-extending fourth Europa League title.
The defeat means Manchester United are without silverware since they last won this competition back in 2017, and speaking afterwards, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer urged his players to ‘learn’ from the experience of defeat in a major final to spur them on next season.
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“It’s quiet, a disappointed dressing room. That’s football for you,” he told BT Sport. “Sometimes it’s decided on one kick – and that’s the difference between winning and losing.
“We have to learn from that one, not savour this feeling but taste this feeling and make sure we don’t get it again.
“We didn’t turn up. We didn’t play as well as we know we can. We started alright and they got the goal, their only shot on target. We were disappointed to concede a goal on a set play.
“We pushed, we pressed, we got a goal. After we scored we didn’t control the game or dominate as we wanted.
“They made it hard for us, they closed spaces. We had the majority of possession. They defended well. We didn’t create enough big chances.
“Now is not the time to point the finger at what I’d have done differently. But when you come out without the trophy you haven’t done everything right.
“We’re getting closer and closer and better. We were one kick away from a trophy and a good night.
“We have to have the desire to come back next year and improve. The only way to get the margins your side is to work harder and better.”
Many onlookers have said this has been a season of progression, the club having reached a major final and finishing second in the Premier League, though Solskjaer had a blunt response when asked if it had been a successful season: “No.”
Man Utd have now faced Spanish opposition three times in major European finals:
❌ 2009: Lost vs. Barcelona (UCL)
❌ 2011: Lost vs. Barcelona (UCL)
❌ 2021: Lost vs. Villarreal (UEL)
They also lost to Real Madrid in the Super Cup in 2017. 🇪🇸 pic.twitter.com/6I6r5M8qIf
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“We need to get better, simple as,” he added. “We’ve done really well this season coming through. The start was difficult. We had no pre-season and lost three of the first six. We pushed in the league, maybe got closer to the top than we thought and we got to a final. But you need to win the finals to make it a good season.”
He did however say his side had the right characters in the dressing room: “Yeah. We missed two big ones today with Fred and Harry [Maguire]. We have a strong, competitive squad. The spirit in the squad is good. They’re gutted in there. Now is not the time to analyse the whole season.”