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Manchester United paid the penalty


Ahead of the game, it was all talk about how Manchester United was ready to end their four-year trophy drought after four semi-final disappointments in a row.

Villarreal players celebrate with the trophy after winning the Europa League. Picture: POOL via Reuters, Michael Sohn

WHAT an anti-climax Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first final as Manchester United turned out to be.

Ahead of the game, it was all talk about how the club was ready to end their four-year trophy drought after four semi-final disappointments in a row. It was supposed to be a magical evening of destiny for Ole.

It was May 26, 22 years to the day that he wrote himself into United’s history by scoring a last-minute winner at the Nou Camp to beat Bayern Munich to the 1999 Champions League final.

It was Sir Matt Busby’s birthday, the builder of United’s first great dynasty and winner of their first European Cup title in 1968.

The number 26 is also special for him because it’s his wife’s birthday and their anniversary.

He even had Alex Ferguson join the team in Gdansk for the special occasion.

And while the great Fergie wasn’t supposed to talk to the players, Nemaha Vidor posted a picture of he and a number of players sitting around a tactics board ahead of the game.

It had a United victory written all over it.

Even without injured captain Harry Maguire, United put out what looked to be their best XI.

Bruno Fernandes deputised in an attacking trio of academy jewels Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, behind the evergreen Edinson Cavani.

The midfield was another pair of homegrown aces in Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba – yes Pogba is a United kid, who they bought back Juventus for a £100m.

But then it all went downhill.

And after Cavani cancelled out Gerard Moreno’s opener in the second half, it became clear that with all the aces on the pitch United had no way of breaking down Villarreal’s stubborn defence.

In the end, it was David de Gea’s saved penalty that cost them victory.

Manchester United’s goalkeeper David de Gea (front right) and teammates react after the penalty shootout of the UEFA Europa League final soccer match against Villarreal CF in Gdansk, Poland, 26 May 2021. Picture: EPA, Aleksandra Szmigiel, POOL

Yes, that’s right. De Gea had his penalty saved. He didn’t save any penalties. And that was that.

Ole said that players come to United to win trophies, but I didn’t see a Champion team on Wednesday night.

I saw a coach who ran out of ideas, who didn’t know when to make a substitution, who froze up when it mattered most.

Those semi-final defeats were repeating all over again. And it’s just going to get tougher for Ole when the spotlight is on. United bottled it. Cracked under pressure. Peed their pants.

It’s a long way back from a defeat like that. Especially when destiny is with you and you blow it. Well I guess that’s just the United perspective.

At Villarreal, it was the club’s first ever major trophy success.

Their squad included ‘weggooi’ Premier League players like Alberto Moreno (Liverpool), Ramiro Dunes Mori (Everton), Francis Coquelin (Arsenal), Etienne Capoue (Spurs and Watford) and Juan Foyth, who is on loan from Spurs.

But the most famous Prem reject among them was boss Unai Emery, the former Arsenal coach.

And this rag-tag bunch of misfits fought like hell to get hold of that trophy. I guess we shouldn’t have overlooked Emery’s Europa League pedigree then.

With a hat trick of titles with Sevilla, and a defeat with the Gunners two seasons ago, Emery won his fourth title in five finals. And yes that is a record.

So there was a fairytale ending to the Europa League final, just the glass shoe was on the other foot.