Unai Emery's reputation took a beating at Arsenal but Manchester United now have to take him on in his arena of choice, writes Andy Brassell...
"What will matter in northern Poland is not just Emery's experience but that of his players - Raúl Albiol, Dani Parejo, Etienne Capoue and Gerard Moreno have all been there and done it."
The Europa League is Unai Emery's competition; everyone else is just playing in it. It's tempting to think that at least in the context of final week, recalling his three straight wins between 2014 and 2016 with Sevilla, a glorious run that deserves to stand out on his CV more than his tricky spell in England.
His struggles at Arsenal - which, ironically, reached their final point in this competition, when he was sacked after a miserable group stage defeat at home to Eintracht Frankfurt - perhaps look a little different after the difficult campaign which has led The Gunners to the prospect of a first season without European football in a quarter of a century. Either way, Emery will face old foes Manchester United in Wednesday's final in conditions that are more favourable to him than previous domestic encounters.
With that said, it is worth underlining that Emery has changed since Sevilla swept all before them in the Europa League. Mixed fortunes in Paris and London, since his glory days in Andalucia, have made the coach a pragmatist off the pitch as well as on it. He knows that he and his Villarreal team are in an unusual position, pondering aloud in the aftermath of Saturday's narrow defeat at Real Madrid that they are between two possibilities as stands.
All or nothing
Emery knows that having just Conference League football to show for their season would be an underachievement for Villarreal. Defeating United, winning a first major trophy in the club's history and reaching the Champions League, on the other hand, would be outstripping expectation considerably.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side are the clear favourites to lift a first trophy together since his 2018 arrival as coach, priced at 1.8910/11 for the win. Yet Villarreal are in no mood to be cannon fodder. "We're not going to Gdansk for a party," said the club's president Fernando Roig this week. "We're going there to beat Manchester United."
Roig is clearly trying to whip up a little fervour of the underdog in the build-up to the final. He recalled to El Periodico Mediterraneo his request to United for a friendly back in 2004 as part of the deal that ended Diego Forlán's difficult spell at Old Trafford - only to be rebuffed as Villarreal were not considered an opponent of suitable profile at the time, as the president tells it.
Less than two years later, of course, Villarreal were within touching distance of preventing another Premier League giant from reaching the Champions League final, when only Jens Lehmann's late penalty save from Juan Román Riquelme spared Arsenal the ordeal of an extra-time examination (and possible elimination) at the hands of the Yellow Submarine. Even if that remains the club's high watermark in European competition - and it still lingers in the memory, having been commemorated at length in the run-up to their last-four victory over The Gunners this time around - they are perennials in Europe.
Similarities between past and present
Some will look at the numbers and quickly conclude that this is not a great Villarreal side by any stretch of the imagination. It has been a debut season of two halves for Emery; his team were beaten just once in all competitions before Christmas, at Barcelona, yet have ended up 19 points adrift of fourth-placed Sevilla after a more stop-start home stretch of the campaign.
The detail, though, is worth delving into. Those four defeats in the last seven contained some good performances, notably in the narrow losses to Barcelona and Real Madrid - Villarreal led in both games.
Tailing off in the league can be part of the Emery Europa experience, too. In the last of his Europa League hat-trick at Sevilla, his team also finished seventh, but ended up a gaping eight points adrift of sixth-placed Celta Vigo as thoughts of the confrontation against Liverpool in Basel took over. Sevilla also failed to win a single away game in La Liga that season, incidentally.
What will matter in northern Poland is not just Emery's experience but that of his players - Raúl Albiol, Dani Parejo, Etienne Capoue and Gerard Moreno have all been there and done it. The good news for Emery is that Moreno, the team's outstanding player, has recovered his form since his iffy displays against Arsenal in the semis (which were the difference between the narrow victory Villarreal ended up with an the more comfortable one they perhaps should have had), with three goals and two assists in his last four matches.
Moreno and his teammates will, at the very least, give United something to think about. Don't be fooled by the little team act - Villarreal mean business this week in Gdansk.
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