Villarreal beat Man Utd to win Europa League in incredible penalty shootout as goalkeeper De Gea misses decisive spot-kick
After the teams finished locked at 1-1 following a first-half finish from Gerard Moreno and 55th-minute equalizer from Edinson Cavani, a tetchy and at times tepid encounter was settled by one of the most incredible penalty shootouts ever seen at a European final.
After both sets of outfield players had found their mark from the spot, Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli drilled his effort into the top corner before saving a tame effort from his opposite number De Gea to hand the Spaniards the title in Gdansk.
The result gives Villarreal manager Unai Emery a personal haul of four Europa League titles – including the three he won in succession at Sevilla – while Manchester United have now gone fours years without silverware, having last tasted success in the same competition under Jose Mourinho back in 2017.
The game itself was an often scrappy affair that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will feel his United team should have won based on the chances they forged and possession they had, but ultimately they tired badly in extra time and paid the price on penalties against a team which finished seventh in La Liga but will now join them in the Champions League next season.
The narrative before the game had penned United as the strong favourites with the individual talent packed into their ranks, although Villarreal were touted for their ability to slow the pace to frustrating levels, potentially nullifying the threat from the pacey Marcus Rashford and 19-year-old Mason Greenwood, who both started along with Cavani and Bruno Fernandes to form United’s attacking thrust.
The early pattern of play bore out that scenario as Villarreal were content to sit back and soak up the pressure, with the only chance of note coming when Scott McTominay flashed a shot wide from the edge of the box.
The contest was briefly halted by an injury to Villarreal defender Juan Foyth who crashed into Paul Pogba after slipping on the ball, leaving the Argentine bloodied and his team down to 10 men while he was patched up on the touchline.
When he did return to the fray, the on-loan Tottenham defender charged on with a bandaged head and echoes of Terry Butcher’s crimson England heroics from 1989.
United looked much the livelier in the opening exchanges but Villarreal hinted at their danger from set-pieces – and their opponents' propensity for defensive lapses – when Manu Trigueros arrived unmarked at the back post from a corner, only to slash wildly wide.
The Spaniards then spurned a good opportunity from a wonderful rabona cross from Carlos Bacca, which was headed over by Pau Torres.
But with captain Harry Maguire watching on from the substitutes’ bench, not having recovered fully from an ankle injury, United’s defensive frailties were exposed with telling effect just before the half-hour mark.
Dani Parejo whipped in a free-kick from the left and as Gerard Moreno and Victor Lindelof tussled to win the race to the ball, it was the Spaniard who got there to turn the ball past De Gea.
It was the 30th goal of the season from the prolific Spanish international and put his team in front as United manager Solskjaer cut a furious figure on the touchline.
Chasing his first silverware in two and half seasons as United boss, Solskjaer was thus far losing out to Emery, the Europa League master with a hat-trick of triumphs to his name in the competition.
Whatever the Norwegian said at the interval, it didn’t immediately jolt his team into life as United were forced to scramble the ball nervously clear from inside their box just three minutes after the restart.
United did threaten not long after though, demanding a penalty after Greenwood went down under contact from Alfonso Pedraza in the box. The VAR declined to recommend a second look from French referee Clement Turpin, and the men in red were left decrying a highway robbery.
But United were level minutes later, and as so often this season the hero was Uruguayan hitman Cavani. The ball pin-balled around the Villarreal box after a corner, eventually falling at the feet of the dark-maned striker, who drilled the ball home with Villarreal ‘keeper Rulli out of position.
The VAR signs went up again for a nervy few moments for the United fans among the 9,500 people in a wet Gdansk, but this time the call went their way as any suggestion of offside was ruled out and Solskjaer’s men were on terms.
United suddenly had their tails up, enjoying a concerted spell of pressure and 20 minutes from time Rashford was guilty of a gilt-edged miss when presented with a Greenwood cross from six yards out and unmarked, although it would have been ruled out for offside.
The Spaniards looked increasingly drained entering the final 15 minutes, with a set-piece chance or clinging on for penalties appearing their best chances of an upset.
By the end of the 90 minutes Emery had already used up five substitutions in a desperate attempt to inject some fresh energy into his tired team. The battered and bruised Foyth was among those to depart after escaping with a yellow card for a challenge on Shaw which some felt warranted stronger sanction.
Pogba headed over on the cusp of injury time when connecting with a cross inside the box as the game went into an extra 30 minutes.
Solskjaer still declined to make a change, despite his team looking more like they were feeling the strain at the conclusion of this most taxing of seasons.
Villarreal were the ones who pressed and probed in the opening period of extra time, with substitute and former Liverpool man Alberto Moreno firing over when the ball fell to him on the edge of the box.
Solskjaer finally did make a substitution in the 100th minute as Fred replaced Greenwood, while the likes of Donny van de Beek, Daniel James and Juan Mata all watched on and many at home were left to ponder what the Norwegian’s reluctance to shake things up said about the depth of the personnel at his disposal.
United were now the ones lacking urgency or impetus as Villarreal pressed, and the Premier League club survived a late VAR call for handball when the ball bounced up onto Fred’s arm after a shot from Gerard Moreno.
Axel Tuanzebe and James were introduced in the last five minutes for Pogba and Eric Bailly, before Solskjaer sneaked in another double change before the contest went to spot-kicks with Alex Telles and Juan Mata replacing McTominay and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Despite petering out in extra time, the match would be decided in the most remarkable denouement from the spot.
All 20 outfield players scored their efforts in a display of some exceptional, nerveless penalty-taking which meant the respective goalkeepers stepped up to potentially determine the destination of the title.
Villarreal's Rulli rifled his effort into the top corner, but De Gea could not match him and stroked a tame effort into the hands of his opposite number, sending the Villarreal players, staff and fans into raptures.
United manager Solskjaer was left to rue another missed opportunity for silverware, succinctly answering “no” when asked if the season had been a success for his team.
“We have to learn from that one, not savour this feeling but taste this feeling and make sure we don't get it again,” said the United boss.
“We didn't turn up. We didn't play as well as we know we can. We started alright and they got the goal, their only shot on target. We were disappointed to concede a goal on a set play.
“We pushed, we pressed, we got a goal. After we scored we didn't control the game or dominate as we wanted…
“Now is not the time to point the finger at what I’d have done differently. But when you come out without the trophy you haven’t done everything right.
"We're getting closer and closer and better. We were one kick away from a trophy and a good night.”
That dejection was the story of the night – and largely of the season – as the Old Trafford club remain far from the force they once were.
The Spanish Yellow Submarine, meanwhile, celebrated buoyantly at a first major title in the club's 98-year history, bringing European glory to a city with a population of just 50,000 people.