TNT Sports Reload - Episode 11Sep 26
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If you ignore the four 0-0 draws these two sides have racked up over the years, Manchester United v Villarreal has the makings of an exciting final.
Only the big three scored more La Liga goals than Villarreal’s 60, with Unai Emery building a team in his own inimitable style whilst retaining the attacking philosophy that has underpinned the success of the Yellow Submarine in the past 15 years.
But which players should Manchester United be fearful of? Let’s take a look.
Striker Gerard Moreno is somewhat of a late developer, having been sold to Espanyol before being bought back three seasons ago, but in that period his left foot has become one of the most proficient this side of Lionel Messi in Spanish football and this season he has been at the peak of his powers.
The 29-year-old has amassed a huge 41 goal contributions in all competitions for Villarreal, including 11 in the Europa League - more than any other player in this season’s tournament proper.
Were we not in a post-Covid environment where transfer budgets are likely to be reduced for the time being, Moreno would be top of the list for most of Europe’s major sides.
It is somewhat a concern for Villarreal, though, that Moreno is largely the only source of goals; he has 23 in La Liga, while Paco Alcacer is next on just six.
The former Barcelona forward does have another six goals in the Europa League but four of those came against the poor Sivasspor and Qarabag in the group stages. If United can get a handle on Moreno, then that could be the key to success.
In the midfield sits one of the signings of the season. Valencia allowed the influential Dani Parejo to leave for nothing last summer and the metronomic midfielder’s form has been so good that he has rejuvenated his career at international level.
Only Toni Kroos and Frenkie De Jong made more passes per 90 minutes in La Liga than Parejo, whose 69 passes P90 in the Europa League predictably tops the charts (minimum 500 minutes played), giving an indication of how effective he is at dictating the pace of the game for his team.
Continually underrated but providing a valuable service for a team that likes to keep the ball, if Parejo is allowed to manage proceedings then United could be in trouble.
And completing the spine is a man who has been regularly linked with a £50m move to Old Trafford - Pau Torres.
The cultured stopper has all the qualities required of the modern centre-back. He isn’t interested in tackling (0.1 tackles won P90 in the EL) or competing with strikers (0.5 aerial duels won P90 in the EL).
Rather, Torres’ skills represent the transition that has taken place in modern defending, with the 24-year-old immensely comfortable stepping forward with the ball and also possessing that most coveted of skills - a left foot.
And partnering him with the rugged veteran Raul Albiol, formerly of Real Madrid and Napoli, has been a masterstroke which provides Villarreal’s back line with the competitive drive it needs.
Elsewhere, Villarreal’s squad has a distinctly familiar feel to Premier League fans.
Arguably the most successful arrival has been Etienne Capoue, who was picked up from relegated Watford in January and has given Emery another option alongside Parejo in the centre of midfield; the duo have proved to be a shrewd partnership.
And to round off Villarreal’s key weapons, there is the mercurial - and frustrating - Samuel Chukwueze.
The 22-year-old winger has been on the verge of becoming a breakout star for two seasons but it hasn’t quite happened - yet.
His decision-making is poor at times, but he has a real ability to penetrate into dangerous positions.
His huge 7.2 touches inside the opposition box P90 minutes is easily the highest among his team-mates and indeed is one of the highest in the competition.
Chukwueze is smart at getting into the positions - if the execution follows, a hugely dangerous talent will be formed.
He has got better as the season has gone on, and it would be cruel if the muscle injury he is currently carrying means he misses out on the final altogether.
So in short, Villarreal are a good side. Unai Emery’s reputation in England may be irrevocably tarnished due to his tumultuous time at Arsenal, but he vanquished his former club in the semi-finals and within Spain he receives the respect his record, particularly in this competition, deserves. Emery and Villarreal should not be taken lightly.