Manchester United suffered European heartache after a cruel 11-10 penalty shootout defeat via the unfortunate boot of David de Gea, who stroked his kick to the left of Gerónimo Rulli, whose save made him Villarreal’s hero.
It is always hard for whoever loses this way and for the goalkeeper to miss the vital spot-kick seems particularly cruel.
While not a single teammate will blame the Spaniard, what it means is a trying season ends with United facing a summer haunted by what might have been if they were only slicker in front of 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 – and a lingering image will be of the jubilant Villarreal players rushing to congratulate Rulli while passing a disconsolate De Gea. The reverse means this Ole Gunnar Solskjær XI fail to write their names into the club’s history, defeat to Villarreal preventing United from claiming a sixth European trophy and joining those who did previously in 2017, 2008, 1999, 1991, and 1968.
Unai Emery’s team do become Villarreal immortals, though. This was a first European cup triumph and for the club whose stadium holds only 23,500 it is a fairytale that should be hailed.
Theirs was a hard earned victory that is heartening for anyone who loves sport’s ability to create romantic storylines. For United there is the succour of a second place Premier League finish and first major final under Solskjær but in the coming days this may feel too little.
Two thousand of United’s faithful – of a total 9,500 crowd – were inside a Gdansk Stadium that despite the pandemic-reduced capacity crackled with atmosphere. Solskjær spoke of thriving on the pressure so a question was how a team featuring four with major final experience – De Gea, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Cavani – would settle. The answer was well – initially.
Mason Greenwood’s 30-yard diagonal landed on Cavani’s toes but instead of hitting instantly, a lay-off to Rashford was fluffed. 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 crucial chat of the manager’s career.
Required now was composure in this closing 45 minutes of United’s 61st match of the campaign. An Aaron Wan-Bissaka flap at a high ball that went close to presaging Villarreal’s second was not a great omen and for a passage passes were misplaced, the tempo disjointed, and 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 hardly miss from seven yards out.
This sent United’s support ballistic and seconds later Cavani was inches away from turning home a Bruno Fernandes pile-driver. The final had become an electric affair contested against a wall of noise, and in extra-time someone might seize the moment for their side. Instead, this final went to spot-kicks and the story became about poor De Gea.