A beautiful, familiar setting
Against all odds, and in its first final ever, Villarreal Club de Futbol took advantage of a lethargic, dull and powerless Manchester United to claim the title of European Champions.
The enchanting Polish city of Gdansk welcomed thousands of fans who took the city by storm and within an atmosphere of “germanor” (Valenciano for brotherhood), cheered through the day, walked to the Polsat Plus Arena Gdańsk, and for the first time in over a year, were able to soak in the beautiful sport in all its glory.
The fans provided, for the first time in a while, a much anticipated frame for what would be an intense, stressful, heart attack-inducing match. Villarreal came out to perform the pre-match warmup, and Villarreal supporters immediately synced in to sign the club’s anthem to an energized, motivated team. Gerard Moreno’s during the warmup was ominous–he was ready to go.
It was the Spanish fans, who at times seemed five, six times in number, who took the match in their own hands in portions of last night’s battle. The residents of Vila-real knew this was going to be their only important final in a long time, and made a conscious effort todo their part to keep the team in the game.
An ideal first half
Villarreal spent the first ten minutes going through understandable first-final jitters. Seemingly easy passes were not reaching their destination; the players were both too revved-up and playing in slow motion, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men seemed to be feeding of the yellow team’s nervousness and instead keeping the ball, smiling through play attempts, and overall showing the rivals they had been there before. Many times before.
However, the Red Devils did not take advantage of that initial window to take charge, and Villarreal started to come out of its shell. 15 minutes had come up, and Villarreal were still in it. They could take chances. They could look their rivals in the eye.
And so, they did. Manu Trigueros ran far post after a corner kick taken by Parejo, and the volley ended up in the second ring of the stands; but the seed was planted. Manchester United were human after all. To the team from a city of 50,000 people, that was a big sign.
The English team did have his chances as well, as Shaw, McTominay and others tried their luck from afar. The ability to run into space and utilize the wings has been a big part of the success of Ole’s team, but against a compact, tucked in Villarreal, chances to score were slim, and limited to shots from outside the box.
At times, Villarreal seemed almost too tucked in. That was obvious in the few counters Emery’s team enjoyed in the first half, where Bacca, willing but disconnected at times, and Yeremy Pino, active and lively, were often the only players charging a defense of five or six at a time.
However, Villarreal was enjoying a few set pieces here and there, and half an hour into the first half, one of them produced. Gerard Moreno, seemingly staying back in a free kick taken by Parejo, quickly ran through the defense, losing his mark, and managing to connect with the perfect curve of Parejo’s cross. Villarreal celebrated, Vila-real did the same back home, and the world was in shock.
It was a reflection of the kind of season Moreno, and by extension Villarreal, have had. Working for one another, staying tucked in, and capitalizing on their opportunities. There is a reason Moreno only needed about half the shots Messi took this season to score 23 goals in La Liga–he’s efficient as he is creative. In that goal, he showed both.
It also seemed to be a rehearsed play. Raul Albiol, slightly in front of Gerard, looked back just as the cross came in, and shielded ex-Villarreal defender Eric Bailly as the Spanish striker charged towards De Gea. The rest is history.
The players celebrated; they formed a pile and hugged each other. But even then, they looked around, waited for an offside call to snap them out of it, or some other external influence that would tell them “No, you are not up in your first final ever.” It never came, and the goal stood.
Everyone who watches this sport would have told you that the next 15 minutes were absolutely crucial for Villarreal. United tried, but its efforts were nothing special, and neither the creativity of Bruno Fernandes, taken away by Capoue’s performance, nor the attacking threat of Cavani, dried out by Pau and Albiol, left Ole with no choice other than shouting at his players at times, and heading to the locker for what surely would be an energetic, borderline angry halftime speech. United needed to show something.
United’s response to claim the stage in this final did not take long. After a soft yellow given to Capoue by Clement Turpin, Villarreal’s defensive presence in the midfield took a hit, and United found a few minutes to have an extra slice of a second to think. A couple of minutes later, a corner by the English deflected off a few players after a shot from Rashford from outside the box. Cavani scored his easiest goal ever in a final, and just like that, things were back to zero.
For fans of the smaller team, the story was being written before them. Cue Manchester United comeback. The triumph of the bigger, better, Superleague-worthy team. A larger-than-life, Nike-commercial-worthy second half.
It didn’t happen. Villarreal spent its worst times in that second half, but knew how to dig itself out of the hole and defend the result. Players were helping each other; others seemed to find energy from who knows where after a season of 50+ matches. Emery’s expertise in European finals was clear through his clinical approach to substitutions, giving the team oxygen when it most needed it.
Cavani and Greenwood had clear chances, but the last shot just wasn’t there. Villarreal kept slow-breathing and keeping its composure through the second half. Juan Foyth bled and pushed through an amazing performance, all but ensuring that Villarreal will spend the money to keep him here. Things were coming down to the wire. Pau had a 92nd minute chance to have a statue in the Plaza Mayor, but the chance went up into the clouds.
It was extra-time.
Emery saw another opportunity to prop his team up, and told them to push up. Villarreal surprised United and the English team found itself having a hard time leaving his portion of the pitch. Tthe Spanish enjoyed several chances to put De Gea on the spot, but nervousness showed its face again, and the yellow team could not capitalize on some decent chances.
The 30 minutes flew past both teams, and with an array of substitutions happening in the last few minutes to give way to penalty experts, the cards were dealt. The most cruel way to end a final was next.
Death by penalties
In a normal penalty shootout of any normal final, the best of five wins. In a normal penalty shootout, someone misses within those five chances, and things tend to end within a couple of minutes.
This was not a normal shootout.
Teams pushed their top penalty takers forward, and as top takers, they all scored. Five out of five, on each side. Things were tied; no goalkeeper had made a save; no player had a shot out of goal. Out of the ordinary, but possible.
Sixth round. Moi Gomez scored. Fred reciprocated.
Seventh round. Raul Albiol, who after the match admitted to not having “Taken a penalty since he was in the youth team” stared down De Gea and passed it to the opposite end of the goalkeeper. Young Dan James didn’t flinch and responded with the 7-7.
Eighth round. Francis Coquelin, a defensive midfielder, placed it in the top left corner of De Gea. Luke Shaw chose the same side with a low shot, and Rulli guessed it right, but the ball inexplicably went through the Argentinian’s hand. The kind of almost-got-it moment you remember forever., especially if you lose.
Ninth round. Mario Gaspar, in the club all his career and one of the captains, blasted it through the middle, and De Gea got a hand on it, but could not deflect it. The right back celebrated it with the passion of someone who knew he could have just as well missed. Axel Tuanzebe showed serenity reserved only for special young players, and made the goalkeeper guess wrong to make it 9-9.
Tenth round. Pau Torres approached the ball, and as the Vila-real kid prepared to shoot, thousands in his hometown worried a mistake would mark him forever.
Nope. His village helped him shoot an unstoppable penalty. The score read 10-9.
Victor Lindelof kept composed and blasted high another good penalty, to tie again.
20 penalties taken. 20 goals.
It was time for the goalkeepers.
At this point, nobody knew where this would go. More than ever, it was down to whatever the sport’s Gods wanted it to be. Geronimo Rulli, after that almost-unnoticed but absolutely crucial save against Arsenal, pulled another stroke of genius and placed a penalty in the top corner of De Gea. The crowd looked in disbelief as players with theoretically poor penalty skills were turning into Lionel.
Something was certainly brewing.
It was time for De Gea. The only Spaniard to start against the Spanish team in last night’s final had written down the list of opposing players, and where they tend to shoot penalties, in a piece of paper taped to his towel.
He never thought he would have to score one himself.
His demeanor said it all: he looked at the crowd right before taking the shot, staring briefly into the Villarreal fans, directly behind Rulli’s goal. He raised his eyebrows, and focused on the ball. He slow-ran towards the ball and placed his foot in an attempt at a well placed shot to the left of Rulli. Even though the direction was good, the height wasn’t, and once Rulli guessed the side right, it was all over.
Villarreal celebrated. Rulli got on his knees, and got run over by his own teammates as they piled on top of him. The fans in Gdansk went crazy. The ones in Vila-real did the same. And just like that, the suffering, the pain, and the 98 years of waiting for something to lift were over. Villarreal, 23 years after being promoted to La Liga for the first time, lift their first trophy. And they do so deservedly, with the passion of an entire town-and beyond-behind them, and against one of history’s best clubs.