Europa League 2021: Preview and Predictions for the Final

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistMay 26, 2021

Europa League 2021: Preview and Predictions for the Final

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    Phil Noble/Associated Press

    Manchester United and Villarreal will square off on Wednesday in the UEFA Europa League final in Gdansk, Poland.

    The Red Devils will go for their second Europa League crown in five seasons, while the Yellow Submarine will try to win their first trophy in the competition.

    The two sides outlasted some of the best clubs in Europe to advance to the final through the 32-team knockout rounds.

    Manchester United downed Real Sociedad, AC Milan, Granada and Roma to reach this point. Villarreal ousted Red Bull Salzburg, Dynamo Kyiv, Dinamo Zagreb and Arsenal.

    Villarreal turned in a slightly better set of results across the knockout rounds, as it did not lose any of its eight matches. Manchester United lost its semifinal second leg to Roma but advanced thanks to a six-goal outburst in the first leg.

    Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United turned in the better overall campaign in their domestic competition, but Villarreal carries the ultimate X-factor on its bench in three-time Europa League-winning manager Unai Emery.

How They Got Here

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    Pablo Morano/Associated Press

    Manchester United dropped into the Europa League knockout round after placing third in UEFA Champions League Group H behind Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig.

    In the round of 32, the Red Devils did not concede a goal in a 4-0 aggregate win over Real Sociedad. They let in a single goal over 180 minutes in the round of 16 versus AC Milan, which ended in a 2-1 aggregate win.

    The Red Devils earned their second win over a Spanish side in the quarterfinals, as they eliminated Granada through a pair of 2-0 victories.

    A six-goal first leg against Roma gave United enough of a cushion to win 8-5 on aggregate.

    Villarreal displayed a strong defensive unit from the start of its foray into the Europa League. It earned three clean sheets, scoring 17 goals and allowing five while going 5-0-1 in Group I, which featured Maccabi Tel Aviv, Sivasspor and Qarabag.

    Emery's men allowed three goals through the four knockout rounds. They conceded one goal to Red Bull Salzburg in the round of 32, Dinamo Zagreb in the quarterfinals and Arsenal in the semifinal, respectively.

    Overall, Villarreal won its eight knockout-round matches by a combined score of 13-3, but it has not scored more than two goals in any of those contests.

    The duo of Paco Alcacer and Gerard Moreno are tied for second on the Europa League Golden Boot chart with six. Benfica’s Pizzi, Lille’s Yusuf Yazici and Borja Mayoral from Roma have all scored seven.

Team News

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    Michael Steele/Associated Press

    Manchester United is dealing with the biggest injury absence of the two teams.

    Harry Maguire is dealing with an ankle issue, and he did not train with the group on Tuesday in Gdansk.

    The English center back last played on May 9. He missed United's final four English Premier League matches. If Maguire is not fit to play, United will be playing without one half of its first-choice center-back pairing.

    Anthony Martial didn't travel with the squad, and Fred is dealing with a knock he picked up against Fulham.

    Villarreal's biggest injury concern lies with winger Samuel Chukwueze, who missed out on the matchday squad to face Real Madrid on Sunday.

    Defender Juan Foyth, who started nine Europa League games, suffered a hamstring injury against Arsenal and will likely miss Wednesday's clash.

Matchups to Watch

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    Alberto Saiz/Associated Press

    Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcacer vs. Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly

    If Maguire is deemed unfit to play, the Red Devils will turn to Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly to anchor the defense.

    Lindelof and Bailly face one of their toughest tests of the competition in defending two of the Europa League's top scorers.

    Moreno and Alcacer were responsible for 12 of Villarreal's Europa League goals, and they have combined for 41 strikes across all competitions. They were the only strikers in the Villarreal squad to record double-digit tallies this season.

    Manchester United's defense has become more porous as of late. It has earned only one clean sheet and conceded 14 goals in the past eight games, four of which Maguire sat out after going down against Aston Villa. With Maguire out of the squad, Leicester City and Liverpool put up six combined goals on the Red Devils, while Fulham and Wolverhampton Wanderers had a goal each.

    Lindelof and Bailly started together in one of those last four matches, and they were gashed for four goals by Liverpool. Axel Tuanzebe started alongside Bailly or Lindelof in the other three contests.

    If United's back line fails to contain Moreno and Alcacer, they could be in danger of suffering some early setbacks. Villarreal scored 10 first-half goals in the seven knockout-round matches in which it found the back of the net. Moreno and Alcacer were responsible for eight of those tallies.


    Paul Pogba vs. Dani Parejo

    Paul Pogba could be United's key to success in the final third.

    Pogba's ability to work through the midfield lines to connect with the strikers could be the difference-maker in keeping the momentum on United's side.

    The French midfielder will go head-to-head with Dani Parejo and Etienne Capoue in the center of the park.

    Parejo featured more than Capoue during Villarreal's season and could be vital to clogging up the passing lanes Pogba typically targets.

    Pogba could be placed closer to Edinson Cavani, or in a deeper role if Marcus Rashford starts the contest up top.

    Parejo ranked in the top 30 in La Liga in tackles per game (1.8) and was in the top 50 of interceptions per contest (1.3).

    The 32-year-old Spaniard also finished in the top 15 in pass success rate at 90.2 percent. If he dictates the tempo, Parejo could keep the ball off Pogba's feet and limit United's quality chances. 


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    Phil Noble/Associated Press

    Scott McTominay

    Scott McTominay could be one of United's most important players on Wednesday.

    The midfielder is constantly on the ball. He had 60 or more touches in six of the last eight matches across all competitions.

    The 24-year-old has a season-long pass accuracy percentage of 87.3. He has been well above his average of 35.1 attempted passes per contest in seven of his last eight starts.

    Similar to Parejo, if McTominay can control the tempo for United and spray the ball ahead to Bruno Fernandes, Pogba and others, they could have a good chunk of the possession and have a better opportunity to create the bulk of the chances.


    Raul Albiol

    Raul Albiol carries some of the most experience across both squads.

    The 35-year-old defender won the 2004 UEFA Cup and a Copa del Rey with Valencia, captured the 2012 La Liga crown with Real Madrid and was a part of Spain's international dominance from 2008 to 2012.

    Albiol's latest task will be containing the production of Cavani, Rashford and the United attack.

    If he sticks with the United strikers and does not give them space, it may lead to a frustrating 90 minutes for the English side.

    Albiol could also be an X-factor on set pieces in the attacking end. He scored against Arsenal and Dynamo Kyiv in the knockout round.


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    Peter Powell/Associated Press

    Manchester United showed in the first leg of the semifinals that it can outlast an opponent in a shootout.

    If the Red Devils' center backs struggle early on, Rashford, Cavani, Fernandes and Pogba could be asked to take over the game. 

    Each member of that quartet has shown throughout the season they can step up in big moments to lift United to victory. 

    Villarreal's attacking corps is not as deep as United's, and if Alcacer and Moreno are contained over 90 minutes, United can earn the edge in the matchup. 

    Sure, Emery has been a magician in the competition for Spanish sides, but he has lost the Europa League final with Arsenal and could suffer the same fate against one of his former Premier League rivals. 

    Prediction: Manchester United 2-1.


    Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

    Statistics obtained from and WhoScored.