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Smart, quick and solid: How Unai Emery’s Villarreal could cause Man Utd problems

When Manchester United touch down in Gdansk ahead of the Europa League final , they will feel the weight of expectation on their shoulders.

Not only is it a chance for them to win the first trophy of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure as manager, they will go into the game as firm favourites.

There are good reasons to believe that United will get their hands on the trophy.

Where opponents Villarreal have ended up seventh in La Liga – a passable finish for El Submarino Amarillo (‘The Yellow Submarine’), though not their best in recent years – United are Premier League runners-up and have gone the whole season unbeaten away from home in the league .

Villarreal have taken five points from a possible 24 against La Liga’s top four of Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla this term, which should give United confidence. Extend that to include Real Sociedad and Real Betis in fifth and sixth place respectively, and it’s only eight points from a possible 36.

Can Villarreal use their underdog status to their advantage?

Nonetheless, they beat Arsenal over two legs in the semi-finals and have won all but two of their games in Europe this season. One of those games was the stalemate at the Emirates which saw them reach the final, while the other was a 1-1 draw in the Europa League group stage against Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Solskjaer will no doubt have sat his players down to watch footage of the Arsenal tie, with Villarreal winning 2-1 at the Estadio de la Ceramica before holding on for a goalless draw in north London. Analysing those games should reveal a fair amount about the Spanish side’s strengths and weaknesses.

Much of Villarreal’s game plan will depend on the fitness of Spurs loanee Juan Foyth and winger Samuel Chukwueze.

They linked up brilliantly on the right flank as Villarreal blew Arsenal away in the first half of their home leg, combining to set up Manu Trigueros’ opener.

Unai Emery knows Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side well from his time working in the Premier League
Unai Emery knows Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side well from his time working in the Premier League

Chukwueze provided pace and width while Foyth supported him with underlapping runs from the right-back position, a plan which worked to great effect before Foyth went down with a hamstring injury in the second half. Chukwueze would go on to pick up a knock of his own at the Emirates, swapping out for teenager Yeremi Pino after only half an hour.

While it was feared that they could be out for the rest of the season, Villarreal are now hopeful that they will be fit enough to feature in Gdansk. Though Pino and long-serving right-back Mario Gaspar are capable deputies, they do not carry the same threat.

United’s midfielders will have to be on their game against Trigueros, Dani Parejo and Etienne Capoue, with the latter coming back from suspension after picking up two yellow cards in the first leg against Arsenal.

Where Capoue should be a familiar opponent from his time at Tottenham and Watford and will give Villarreal an edge in the middle of the park, Trigueros and Parejo are the danger men.

In both legs against Arsenal, they made life extremely difficult for Thomas Partey and, in the first leg especially, they found space between the lines and exploited it ruthlessly. Partey struggled to follow their movement and match their intensity, with Trigueros a particularly tricky opponent thanks to his ability to switch effortlessly between playing wide and centrally.

While he didn’t score against Arsenal, Gerard Moreno has been Villarreal’s talisman up front this season. He has 29 goals in all competitions, one more than United’s top scorer Bruno Fernandes.

Partnering him will be either ex-Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund man Paco Alcacer or former AC Milan striker Carlos Bacca. While Alcacer has more goals this season, Bacca is in better form having scored a hat-trick against Sevilla a couple of weeks ago.

More than anything, however, Unai Emery has turned Villarreal into a difficult team to beat in the Europa League. They have conceded only three goals in the knockout stages, keeping five clean sheets from the round of 32 onwards.

That is down in no small part to a centre-back pairing of Raul Albiol and Pau Torres. Where Albiol needs no introduction after four years at Real Madrid and six at Napoli, Torres, 24, has had the most impressive season of his career and is one of the most exciting up-and-coming defenders in Europe.

With United among the clubs credited with an interest in Torres , Solskjaer will follow his performance with interest. He need only rewatch Villarreal’s performance in the second leg against Arsenal to see how effective their back line can be.

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