The Villarreal striker in hotter form than Edinson Cavani, the £55m defender on Man United’s radar and Solskjaer’s game changers Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba… The key men who could decide tonight’s Europa League final in Gdansk
- Manchester United take on Villarreal in Wednesday night’s Europa League final
- Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is aiming to win the first silverware of his time in charge
- Spanish club Villarreal are bidding to win the first major trophy in their history
- Edinson Cavani is in a rich vein of form after scoring nine goals in 10 matches
- But Villarreal forward Gerard Moreno has netted 29 goals so far this season
- Defender Pau Torres will be charged with nullifying Fernandes and Paul Pogba
It promises to be a glittering spectacle in the golden Gdansk Stadium.
Manchester United and Villarreal meet in the UEFA Europa League final on Wednesday night desperate to conclude an extraordinary season with a trophy.
It would be a sixth major European trophy for United, their first for four years, a maiden piece of silverware for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and, he hopes, the start of a Ferguson-esque dynasty of success.
The golden edifice of the Gdansk Stadium in Poland ahead of the Europa League final
Manchester United train on Tuesday night ahead of their meeting with Villarreal in the final
For the players of Villarreal, who are playing in their first major European final after previously losing in four semi-finals, it’s a true shot at immortality.
But who are the key players likely to decide the outcome of the final? We take a closer look at five who could easily make the difference.
Pogba’s beaming smile was never too far from the surface as United trained in Gdansk on Tuesday night.
It reflects a player who finally seems settled at Old Trafford and comfortable with his role in Solskjaer’s evolving team.
The financial realities of the Covid-19 pandemic mean that mega-money move to Real Madrid has next to no chance of happening and Pogba has made his peace with the situation.
This has been his best season in United’s midfield and at peak form around the beginning of the year – when there was the briefest flicker of a Premier League title challenge – Pogba’s influence as a match-winner was enormous.
Paul Pogba was in high spirits ahead of the final and can round off a superb season on a high
The French midfielder celebrates scoring the fifth of United’s six goals against Roma
When the Frenchman limped off with a hamstring injury in United’s 3-3 draw against Everton on February 6, United took just seven points from 15 in the five games from that afternoon on. By the time of his return to fitness, Manchester City had galloped clear.
But Pogba, who has six goals and nine assists for the season, could yet round off the campaign by inspiring United to success in the Europa League, as he did in 2016-17, the first season after his £89million return to the club.
Solskjaer has taken to playing him on the left side of the forward line, a position which has long played to his strengths, and there won’t be many better opportunities to demonstrate his capability to decide showpiece games.
We can expect a typically dynamic performance to pile the pressure onto Villarreal’s defensive line. It was Pogba’s deflected shot that broke the Ajax resistance in the 2017 final and we could well see similar here.
Man United need to sign a centre-back this summer and Villarreal’s Pau Torres has reportedly attracted their attention.
It would mean the world for the 24-year-old Spain international to lead his hometown club, whom he joined at the age of five, to their first-ever major piece of silverware.
Torres was called up to Luis Enrique’s 24-man Euro 2020 squad the other day and is now tasked with stopping the in-form Edinson Cavani, which will be a real examination of his defensive credentials.
Villarreal’s central defender Pau Torres has been linked with a number of leading clubs
Torres in action against Real Madrid’s Isco during their league clash at the weekend
But as Enrique said after making the call to leave the vastly experienced Sergio Ramos out his squad: ‘I like everything about Pau Torres. He’s tall, good-looking, a good lad and reads the game well.’
The 24-year-old has been pretty much an ever-present for Villarreal this season and it will take a premium to prise him away – his release clause stands of £55million.
Barcelona and Real Madrid have also been mentioned as potential destinations for a player who admitted he was in floods of tears as a child when Villarreal lost to Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League semi-finals.
Keeping United’s attackers at bay on Wednesday night will only increase the considerable buzz around him further.
Talking of Cavani, few players will be going into the final on Wednesday in hotter form.
Nine goals in his last 10 United matches have reminded everyone of the Uruguayan’s enduring class and there was widespread delight when he agreed a one-year contract extension at Old Trafford.
The 34-year-old forward destroyed Roma in the semi-finals, scoring four goals and setting up another three over the course of the two legs.
Edinson Cavani celebrates after scoring that outrageous long-range lob against Fulham
The Uruguayan striker delivered a masterclass as United thrashed Roma in the semi-finals
While Cavani clearly isn’t the long-term solution to United’s need for a top class centre forward, he has every chance of making a telling impact on this final and finally winning a European trophy.
Cavani’s expert movement to get into scoring positions will give Torres and Raul Albiol a headache all night and he can also drag them out of position to allow Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes to profit.
The audacious long-range lob Cavani scored in his last outing against Fulham just underlined his excellence and you wouldn’t bet against another memorable moment in Wednesday night’s final.
There’s no question who Villarreal will be turning to for goals on Wednesday night.
Moreno is enjoying an excellent season, with only Lionel Messi exceeding his 23 LaLiga goals and 29 to his credit in total. The Spain international, 29, scored important goals against Red Bull Salzburg, Dynamo Kiev and Dinamo Zagreb during their run to the final.
He also ended the league season well, with three goals in Villarreal’s last four matches helping them to a seventh place finish and a Europa Conference League spot they will be hoping to upgrade to the Champions League by winning the final.
Gerard Moreno (right) celebrates scoring in Villarreal’s recent league fixture with Valladolid
Moreno has been responsible for some important goals on their Europa League run, including this penalty in the away leg against Dinamo Zagreb
United’s defence looks more vulnerable in the absence of Harry Maguire through injury and it will fall to Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly to keep Moreno quiet.
It could be a big summer for the striker, who was named in the Spain squad for Euro 2020 after five goals in 10 international outings.
It’s been a truly brilliant first full season in United colours for Fernandes and after a haul of 28 goals and 17 assists, they will once again look to the Portuguese star to deliver the goods and a trophy.
There were fears that Fernandes, who is rarely given a game off by Solskjaer, was suffering from burn-out when he went through a barren patch in April.
But he responded in emphatic style with two goals and two assists in the 6-2 thrashing of Roma in the first leg of the semi-finals and still appears to have plenty in the tank.
It’s been a long and demanding season for Bruno Fernandes, but United will request one more magical performance from their Portuguese talisman
Fernandes converts a penalty against Roma in United’s 6-2 first leg win – one of his most complete performances in a United shirt
That’s just as well because United need Fernandes to unlock stubborn defences and raise the tempo of their play when things fall flat during games.
It will fall to Etienne Capoue, formerly of Tottenham and until recently at Watford, to somehow try and limit the influence of Fernandes.
It’s an unenviable task and a first trophy with the Old Trafford club will stylishly round off an excellent season for the playmaker.
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