Manchester United suffered European heartache by a cruel 11-10 penalty shootout defeat via the unfortunate boot of David de Gea who stroked his kick to the left of Geronimo Rulli, whose save made him Villarreal’s hero.
It is always cruel for whoever loses this way and for United a long season ends with them having to spend the summer haunted by what might have happened if they were slicker before goal and had not handed Gerard Moreno his first-half opener due to calamitous defending.
Edinson Cavani’s equaliser after the interval was indicative of United’s awkward rhythms in attack – his finish coming when the ball ricocheted to him. This reverse means this Ole Gunnar Solskjær XI fails to write their names into the club’s history, defeat to Villarreal preventing them from claiming United a sixth European trophy and joining those who did so in 2017, 2008, 1999, 1991, and 1968.
Two thousand travelling United fans – of a total 9,500 crowd – were inside a Gdansk Stadium that despite its pandemic-reduced capacity crackled with noise. Solskjær offered no selection surprises, choosing a line-up that had David de Gea in goal, Paul Pogba partnering Scott McTominay in midfield, and Eric Bailly replacing the injured Harry Maguire, who was, surprisingly, a replacement.
Unai Emery configured his players in a 4-3-3 that had the potent Moreno at centre-forward, his 23 strikes second to Lionel Messi in La Liga.
Solskjær spoke of thriving on the pressure so a question was how a team featuring four with major final experience – De Gea, Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Cavani – would settle. The answer was well – initially. Bailly, Victor Lindelöf and Luke Shaw were involved in a move that had the latter pinging a cross to Cavani, who failed to control but who was soon causing a problem. A run drew the defence to the left and Rashford galloped into space, teed the ball up for McTominay, whose effort went wide.
A puzzle was how Solskjær’s men might prosper when hogging possession against an opponent who defended deep. This is United’s supposed weakness yet for a passage they were a red wave that might engulf Villarreal. A Mason Greenwood probe claimed a corner, Shaw delivered this and the yellow shirts scrambled away.
What United had to do was make the ascendancy pay. Instead, Alfonso Pedrza claimed a free-kick that derived a corner and United allowed Manu Trigueros to volley at the back post. It went high yet was a reminder of a flakiness from set pieces.
Better was a sequence that had Aaron Wan-Bissaka flighting over a cross for Shaw, who unloaded. Villarreal, though, had established themselves: twice McTominay’s doughtiness was evident as first he headed a Daniel Parejo corner clear, then charged down Yeremi Pino’s shot. The contest was heating up.
Greenwood’s 30-yard diagonal landed on Cavani’s toes but instead of hitting instantly a lay-off to Rashford was fluffed. Next, the latter took aim from long range but this bounced safely into Gerónimo Rulli’s hands. And now United’s dead-ball achilles heel cost them, with Lindelöf the culprit.
Parejo’s left-to-right free-kick came slanting into a crowd and the Swede was just too weak as Moreno nipped in to beat De Gea. This was a body blow United had to respond to. They did via surging runs from McTominay, Cavani and Shaw, who had previously been rollicked by Solskjær for not doing so. The half ended with Rashford and Greenwood bursts that narrowly failed to force an equaliser as off went United for the most vital chat of the manager’s career.
Required was composure in the closing 45 minutes of United’s 61st match of the campaign. A Wan-Bissaka flap at a high ball that went close to presaging a Villarreal second was not a great omen.
For a passage, passes were misplaced, tempo disjointed, movement sluggish: United were unable to tap the ball around and move Villarreal about as they wished. When Pedraza came together with Greenwood in the area the teenager went down but Clement Turpin did not award a penalty and VAR backed the referee.
There was no doubt about the leveller, though. A Shaw corner from the left went to Rashford whose volley pinged to Cavani who could not miss from seven yards out. This sent United’s support ballistic and moments later Cavani was inches away from turning home a Bruno Fernandes piledriver. The final had become an electric affair contested against a wall of noise.
Waiting was the chance to seize the moment and become the evening’s hero. Or, villain if an error led to the vital strike. When this final went to extra-time and then the awful spot-kicks the story became about the poor De Gea.