PETE JENSON: How did Villarreal's Unai Emery become Mr Europa League?

Unai Emery’s Villarreal are underdogs against Manchester United but nobody knows this competition better than him… as he hopes to lift the trophy for a record FOURTH time in his fifth final, just how did he become Mr Europa League?

  • Unai Emery leads Villarreal into the Europa League final against Man United 
  • It will be his fifth final and he has lifted the trophy three times as Sevilla boss 
  • Emery once defended competition to Sir Alex Ferguson, who will be in Gdansk
  • Villarreal need to win the game or face a year in UEFA’s new Conference League

Unai Emery has never been ashamed of his love of the Europa League. He once defended its honour to Sir Alex Ferguson, and it’s not lost on him that on Wednesday night it will be Manchester United who he faces in his fifth final.

It was at one of the coaches’ meetings in Nyon while he was Valencia manager that Emery was talking up UEFA’s second competition. ‘Ferguson asked me: “But wouldn’t you like to win the Champions League?” And I said, “yes of course I would, but the Europa League is a place where many teams, fans and players can find important recognition”.’

He told Marca in an interview on Tuesday: ‘Now United has been playing the Europa League for many years, hoping to win it, and sometimes having to win it to reach the Champions League. That’s what has brought the Europa League closer to the Champions League.’

Unai Emery steps off Villarreal’s plane after touching down in Gdansk on Tuesday afternoon

Emery previously defended the Europa League to Manchester United legend Sir Alex Ferguson

Emery is enormously proud of his record to date but you sense beating Manchester United, with that Ferguson conversation in mind, will mean more to him than any of his previous final successes. His first two wins in the competition were over Benfica and Dnipro. Liverpool topped both of those triumphs.

‘They were left without a place in the following season’s Europa League and in the following season’s Champions League,’ he says. ‘It’s a competition that has grown a lot and has a lot of value now.’

Part of the reason why it’s come such a long way from the days of Spurs fans teasing Arsenal supporters with songs of: ‘Oh what a night, watching Tottenham on a Tuesday night. You play Thursday ‘cos you’re f****** s****. What a feeling, what a night,’ is that the Conference League is the new ugly duckling.

The problem for Emery is that after finishing seventh in LaLiga the Conference will be Villarreal’s fate next season if they lose in Gdansk. It’s hard to see Emery managing to raise the same levels of enthusiasm for it.

Emery has reached four finals already – winning three – and this is his fifth showdown

‘It’s a new competition and if we’re in it then we will try to win it,’ he has said but he’s not a young coach anymore fresh from getting Almeria promoted in 2007 and dazzling everyone with his clever set-piece training ground routines and his detailed study of the opposition.

He’s a a veteran of Sevilla, Valencia, Arsenal and Paris Saint Germain now and he wants to be seen as one of Europe’s finest coaches. He went past Giovanni Trapattoni for the most games coached in the Europa League at the quarter-final stages of this year’s tournament. If he wins it this week he will go past Trapattoni again – they have both lifted the 15kg of silver three times, nobody has done it four times.

Villarreal hired him at the end of last season after sacking their manager Javi Calleja. It was a brave move after Calleja, former player and youth team coach at the club, had delivered Europa League qualification.

Villarreal players celebrate beating Emery’s old side Arsenal in the semis earlier this month

It was a statement of ambition too – veterans of four semi-final defeats and a LaLiga runners-up spot they wanted to finally win something. ‘He had cache,’ Villarreal Chief Executive Fernado Roig told Sportsmail this week. ‘We were used to coaches at the start of their career; he had already been at some big clubs.’

The gamble has paid off in as much as history was made when they knocked out Arsenal to reach the final.

League form perhaps suffered with the focus often on Europe. They picked up 13 draws in LaLiga and a nagging inability to beat teams from the top four left them down in seventh.

There are plenty of promising signs for next season with centre-forward Gerard Moreno the top Spanish scorer in LaLiga and 23-year-old centre back Pau Torres the young defender all the big clubs in Europe are watching.

Emery celebrates at the end of the 2016 Europa League final, in which Sevilla beat Liverpool

At the weekend against Madrid they kept the ball brilliantly in the first half, frustrating their opponents and taking a 1-0 lead. The underlying inconsistency that has plagued them all season saw a drop in tempo in the second half and Zinedine Zidane’s team ran out 2-1 winners.

No-one will remember that or the league failings if they take the trophy back to the 50,000 residents of Villarreal and catapult themselves from the Conference into next season’s Champions League.

You never know quite what you will get from Emery on a big night. For each of those three Europa Leagues won there is a Champions League failure at PSG or the nagging failure to beat Chelsea in last season’s final. A game Emery says he has never watched back because Chelsea were ‘simply better’ than his team in the second period.

Manchester United players train in Gdansk as they prepare to take on Villarreal tonight

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are the favourites to win the competition over Emery’s team

All that can be guaranteed is that he will not be found wanting in terms of desire to overcome the odds.

‘In a final of 90 minutes, 120 minutes, or even penalties, a lot can happen,’ he told Marca. ‘United will have their moments, Villarreal will have its moments, let’s see who takes advantage the most. The normal thing would be that they have more moments than us but we have to make sure they don’t get too many and that we capitalise on ours. Normally the favourite wins but we have a chance.’

He knows his team are the outsiders this time but that – and beating Sir Alex’s former club – will only make the achievement greater. If he does it, he will stand alone as the manager with four Europa Leagues – don’t trying telling him that’s no big thing.

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