Manchester United travel to Gdańsk in Poland for a Europa League final on Wednesday night with Villarreal. It will be Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s first final as United manager since taking over two years ago.
United wrapped up their domestic campaign at the weekend in exuberant style with an outfield full of young and old understudies who did not disappoint. Anthony Elanga, leading the forward line, scored a terrific header; Amad Diallo shone looking assured throughout; Juan Mata got a goal for him and his mother; Donny van de Beek played with aggression and purpose in central midfield.
One wonders why we have not seen more of the squad earlier in the season when, for example, Marcus Rashford was being run into the ground. But perhaps Solskjær’s man-management fostered these performances on Sunday rather than chucking the kids in too early – there was noticeable improvement from the Leicester City game earlier this month featuring many of the same fresh faces. In any case, it was a United display of old much to Wolves’ frustrations.
Villarreal, to Solskjær’s chagrin, were afforded the chance to play on Saturday meaning they could field a full-strength side against Real Madrid. Villarreal lost, and finished just outside the European places for next season – so they will have extra motivation on Wednesday. United have already qualified for next season’s Champions League and will be focussed solely on collecting some silverware.
United’s most recent final was a 1-0 loss to Chelsea in the FA Cup. José Mourinho also presided over United’s last victory in the 2017 Europa League final – an emotional occasion for the club with the Manchester Arena attack two days prior.
Solskjær’s team can be satisfied with a second-place league finish in a draining pandemic 2020/21 season, and look forward to Champions League football again next season. Bringing back a cup and winners’ medals from Poland, though, would provide something of real value to show for their steady progress.
Dean Henderson is, apparently, United’s first choice goalkeeper. And, unless that decision has been rolled back since, Henderson should be starting on Wednesday night. Solskjær is not in a position to let sentiment get in the way of a trophy – however fitting it would be for David de Gea’s service to United – and his head will be telling him to go with Henderson.
It’s a fact of finals and management, unfortunately. If Solskjær looks to Sir Alex Ferguson for counsel, you can imagine Ji-Sung Park coming up in conversation.
Solskjær remains torn between Henderson and De Gea due to their contrasting temperament, reliability and skill-set. Sources say Ole accepts that the goalkeeper who misses out in in the #UEL final will consider it the end of their #mufc career #mulive [espn]— utdreport (@utdreport) May 24, 2021
Besides, most of the conjecture has focussed on United winning it with De Gea. Imagine what that would do for Henderson’s development. Or, the prospect of De Gea’s last game for United after ten years being defeated in a final.
Had a season which went from strength to strength, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and will be welcomed back into the fold for Villarreal.
Harry Maguire magically appearing looks like a stretch even for Solskjær’s standards of subterfuge. Victor Lindelöf has had a mixed season but has produced some notable performances, and has the experience to navigate a final against a team who aren’t able to bully him in the air.
Pretty sure Tuanzebe is a better partner for Lindelöf than Bailly – he's less rash, more proactive and generally smarter.— United Rewind (@unitedrewind) May 23, 2021
Axel Tuanzebe can play on the left of a centre pairing, too, complementing Lindelöf who prefers the right.
Not only has Luke Shaw had a wonderful, rejuvenating season, the left-back is vital for United’s options in attack, overloading the left wing to support the forwards.
Shaw’s career-threatening injury happened in European competition, and he was in a suit and crutches when United won the Europa League final in 2017. Shaw also missed United’s League Cup final win over Southampton in 2017 and defeat to Chelsea in the 2018 FA Cup final. Victory in Gdańsk to cap off his season would be as sweet as they come for Shaw.
It’s a toss-up between Fred and Scott McTominay, if we can insist on only one holding midfielder for this match. All evidence suggests that will not be the case as Solskjær has consistently favoured both sitting midfielders in the latter half of this season. Against Fulham most recently, it was Fred who partnered Paul Pogba when Pogba last featured in central midfield. With Maguire probably missing at the back, it’s even less likely we’ll see the McFred monopoly broken.
United are much better balanced when Pogba drops back into a central midfield that otherwise has a dearth of creative quality. Sometimes, you just have to field your best players in their best positions from the start. The final could pass United by in another disjointed blur, or they could blow the opposition away with quick, incisive passages of play with little to fear from the seventh-placed side in La Liga.
Mason Greenwood’s quietly having a brilliant season and, were it not for Edinson Cavani, his achievements after a slow start would be lauded more. Greenwood is no longer just potential.
One final display from United’s playmaker. And hopefully a trophy in his first full season for the Reds.
If fit and ready, it would be frustrating to see Marcus Rashford shunted to the right to accommodate Pogba on Wednesday night. One of United’s few explosive players who can stretch the game. If Solskjær decides to be conservative, we may even see Rashford from the bench.
Scored a sublime goal against Fulham last week and is having a belting end to the season, allaying fears of being another over the hill superstar after a tricky winter period. Used sparingly, Cavani has more to offer United – and he should steady any nerves up front in the final.