It is a riveting Europa League final in Gdansk, Poland on Wednesday evening, as Manchester United look to make it a Premier League sweep of both European finals this season when they take on the tactically and technically formidable Villarreal. 

The Overview

The Europa League honestly should be renamed the Emery League if Villarreal manager Unai Emery lifts the trophy again, as he seeks an unprecedented fourth title in this competition. The Spaniard has recovered from not putting himself into the Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp level of elite managers after his troubles at PSG and Arsenal to bring back the joy of his three-time UEL winning Sevilla days. 

Villarreal have been the most impressive team throughout the entire Europa League this season. They have not lost a single one of their  14 games in the entire competition, with 12 wins, one draw in the group stage and the scoreless second leg draw against Arsenal in the Emery Derby tie to advance to the final. Similar to those triumphant Sevilla sides, Emery has gotten all of his moves astutely right. And his reward for having his shrewd players in the right position is a very competent unit delivering peak stable, strong performances Thursday after Thursday. 

Pau Torres has emerged in many eyes as one of the in-demand centerbacks in the world. The 24-year-old has combined with 35-year-old accomplished veteran Raul Albiol to have one of the more impenetrable spines in Europe. Albiol and Torres just haven’t made costly mistakes in allowing the Yellow Submarines to be a dangerous, stingy foe to an opposing team desperate for a goal. Being secure in the back has allowed Emery to see his side excel with clinical finishing going forward. 

Gerard Moreno has raised his game to another level this season. The 29-year-old’s intelligent runs have given skillful midfield technicians Manuel Trigueros and Dani Parejo, and strike partner Paco Alcacer, the lanes to deliver the cutting edge passes that Moreno has turned into assists with his dynamic left foot. Both Alcacer and Moreno are tied for second in UEL goals this season with six and are ready to give Villarreal their biggest win in club history. 

While Villarreal has been the paradigm of consistent excellence for a European campaign, Manchester United are hoping their roller coaster continental efforts end in their first in four long years. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men wasted impressive victories over PSG and RB Leipzig to crash out of the Champions League at the knockout stages. That embarrassment meant United had to show whether they would take seriously the mantle of being clear favorites for the second-tier competition that they wanted no part of. 

Credit then must be given to United navigating a difficult knockout stage path to the final, where they could have easily stumbled. Impressively dispatching two La Liga top half teams (Real Sociedad, Grenada) and talented Serie A big clubs (AC Milan, Roma) showed for the most part that United did take this competition seriously when they didn’t have to. Solskjaer’s men were not mired in the Top 4 struggle in the Premier League and don’t need to win the UEL like they did three seasons ago in order to return to the Champions League. But the pride of winning a European trophy, albeit the lesser one, is vital for the club to take the necessary steps to return to the level their crosstown rivals Manchester City are at. Solskjaer’s desire to secure firm confidence in him from United fans - that he is the manager to lead them back to club soccer’s summit - would remain elusive if his side failed to win his first trophy. Not winning the Europa League last summer makes a runner-up finish a nightmare deja vu scenario. 

The Final Verdict

Without a doubt, if one created a best XI from both teams, United would arguably take every spot on the field. Only the midfield maestros of Parejo and Trigueros being better passers and shooters than Fred could see them make a combined starting team of the two finalists. Despite Moreno, Alcacer, Samuel Chukwueze and Carlos Bacca being a strike force filled with goals, they are all second fiddle to Edison Cavani, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and even the much maligned Anthony Martial, with Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba always capable of their own individual excellence in the final third. 

But it is without question that Villarreal have been the mentally stronger side in UEFA play this season between the two clubs. Emery’s squad just have refused to make their own mistakes and have capitalized on their opponent’s misfortunes with ruthless efficiency. It is the formula that Emery built with his famous Sevilla Europa champion sides (with Bacca included) and it is a formula that will take United being at their best to overcome it. 

Adversaries of both Super League clubs (United fans included) and Premier League domination will be pulling adamantly for Villarreal to have its greatest night in the club’s biggest game ever. A Europa League title would also send them back to the Champions League for the first time since 2011-12, giving La Liga the bragging rights of being the only league with five teams in the best club competition in the world for next season. 

The concerns about Villarreal being simply outclassed by United are legit, with defeats to Spain’s Big Two on the opening (browned out by Barcelona) and final weeks (edged out by a title ambitious Real Madrid) of their league schedule highlighting the talent gap the Yellow Submarines have to overcome to pull off the upsets against the elite. 

However, there are still some questions as to whether Solskjaer can be tactically great when the pressure for United to return to the top is on for him. He overthought his formation in playing a 4-5-1 setup out of nowhere in being outcoached the second time he faced Julian Nagelsmann in Leipzig knocking United out of the Champions League last December. Emery’s pedigree in this final stage is clearly as proven as it gets and is vastly superior over the Norwegian. Add the fact that they are questions as to the fitness of captain Harry Maguire, and this has all the makings of a glorious ending that Villarreal fans have been waiting for. 

It will be a disaster for Solskjaer if United were to lose this, and I think that will be the case. 

Final score prediction

Villarreal 2-1 Manchester United