For the first time under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United are preparing for a final.
The Europa League might not be top of the agenda for Solskjaer’s United ambitions but, after four semi-final defeats as manager in three different competitions, he will be delighted to have a shot at what could be the Red Devils’ first trophy since they won this competition in 2017.
Of course, this is also a momentous occasion for Villarreal: a first European final of any kind against a team who have been in these matches seven times previously. However, the Spaniards boast experience in coach Unai Emery, who won this trophy on three occasions while in charge of Sevilla.
Ahead of the first major final in European competition this week, Stats Perform examines the key Opta data…
When it comes to experience at this stage, Emery certainly has the edge.
The former Arsenal boss lifted this trophy three years in a row from 2014 to 2016 and could become the first coach to win either the UEFA Cup or Europa League four times.
6- Thanks to Julen Lopetegui (2020) & Unai Emery (2014, 2015 & 2016) both, @SevillaFC_ENG have won four out their total six UEFA Cup/#UEL, more than any other side in the competition ever. Guipúzcoa#SevillaVillarreal pic.twitter.com/DbrT37tNTy
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) December 29, 2020
Solskjaer, however, has contested only one final in his managerial career: he won the 2013 Norwegian Cup with Molde. Indeed, no Norwegian coach has ever won a major European trophy.
Emery and Solskjaer have faced off twice before in the Premier League, when the Spaniard was at Arsenal. The Gunners won 2-0 at Emirates Stadium in March 2019, ending Solskjaer’s unbeaten league start at United, before a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in September of that year.
However, it was Solskjaer who came out on top when they met in a knockout fixture, United triumphing 3-1 in north London in an FA Cup tie in January 2019. Their goals in that tie came from Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial – none of whom will be involved in Gdansk.
While Emery is chasing history of his own, Villarreal are hoping to become the 10th Spanish team in a row to defeat an English side in a European final – a run that includes United losing twice to Barcelona in the Champions League.
United have found it tough going against the Yellow Submarine in the past. In fact, the Red Devils have faced Villarreal more often without scoring than any other side in their history, with each of their previous four meetings ending 0-0.
However, United have won five of the seven major European finals they have contested (only Liverpool, with 14, have been in more among English sides). A win would secure the 67th trophy in their history, extending their lead over Liverpool (65) when it comes to England’s most successful clubs.
The Star Names
All eyes will be on Bruno Fernandes in his first final for United.
The Portugal star has played 57 times this season, more than anyone else in Europe’s top-five leagues, providing 28 goals and 18 assists. Only four players across those top leagues have been directly involved in more goals. His 137 chances created surpasses anyone else.
Bruno Fernandes in this competition =
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) May 24, 2021
Wednesday could also see Mason Greenwood make his first career appearance in a final. Should he score, he would become only the second English teenager to do so in a major European final, the first being Brian Kidd, who netted on his 19th birthday when United beat Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final.
At the other end of the career spectrum sits Edinson Cavani, who has averaged a goal or assist every 35 minutes in this season’s Europa League, the best return of anyone to play at least 200 minutes in the competition.
Cavani, who has 10 league goals in just 13 starts in his first season with the club, is bidding to become the third player aged 34 or over to score in a major European final for an English side, after Gary McAllister in the 2001 UEFA Cup final and Didier Drogba in the 2012 Champions League final.
Carlos Bacca has history in this fixture, having scored twice in the final six years ago for Sevilla. The Colombian could become the first player to score in a major European final for two teams from the same nation since Hernan Crespo, who was on target for Parma in 1999 and then Milan in 2005.
Villarreal’s main threat will likely come through Gerard Moreno. With 29 goals and 10 assists in all competitions, he has been the most dangerous Spanish forward in Europe this term. Indeed, Lionel Messi (50) is the only player from LaLiga with more direct goal involvements.
23 – Villarreal’s Gerard Moreno is the first Spanish player to score at least 23 goals in a single LaLiga season since Diego Costa in 2013/14 (27). Enormous. pic.twitter.com/KhxisTsCxy
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 16, 2021
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