In the end it all came down to this: goalkeeper against goalkeeper, winner takes all. For more than two hours Manchester United and Villarreal had circled each other like staggering boxers: tired limbs throwing tired punches and running through thick mud. The 61st game of Manchester United’s season and the 57th game of Villarreal’s unfolded in a manner we should probably have predicted. But as of 11.54pm in Gdansk, as David de Gea stood over his fateful kick, all possibilities remained ridiculously open.
It was a game in which United began as favourites, went into half-time as underdogs, looked to have it in the bag by the hour and ended up losing in flabbergasting circumstances. In many ways it was an evening that summed up their season: oscillating wildly between extreme competence and extreme lethargy, sometimes in the same game, occasionally even in the same attack. By the end, it felt as if United were grateful simply to still be there. For Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team, the means justified the soul-crushing end.
Ultimately, this wasn’t about who wanted it more. They both wanted it plenty. For United, this wasn’t a test of mettle or character or those myriad indefinable qualities television pundits like to talk about. It was a test of ingenuity too: a measure of their ability to create and innovate and find solutions on the pitch, particularly with no obvious bench option and Solskjær waiting until the 100th minute to make his first change. It was a test of initiative, particularly for a team that has often preferred to play the reactive part in big games. Instead, inert and fearful, they left their fate in the hands of blind chance.
At half-time, things were already getting weird. Villarreal were playing their game while preventing United from getting anywhere near theirs. As soon as United remotely threatened, Villarreal’s two banks of four would collapse on to each other like deckchairs, squeezing United’s space, funnelling the ball to their least threatening players. Bruno Fernandes was simply being squeezed out of the game, smothered in sheets of yellow, like a man trapped in a cheese sandwich. United were trying to win a European trophy through the playmaking skills of Scott McTominay and the crossing ability of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, with predictable results.
Enter Edinson Cavani, a restless heartthrob of a striker whose desire and work rate often overshadow his immense cleverness. He poached nine minutes into the second half after Marcus Rashford’s hopeful long-range shot. It had the feel of a capricious goal, but the Uruguayan’s skill is in reading the unreadable, priming himself for these moments: the anticipation, the positioning, the clever little shuffle to get back onside just as Rashford was lining up the shot, which given the marginal VAR call required afterwards was almost certainly the difference between goal and no goal.
That was it, or so we thought. Villarreal had lost three times in recent weeks after going ahead; United had won 12 times this season after falling behind. At one point, a flagging Villarreal brought the ball out of midfield on the counterattack, only for Francis Coquelin to simply turn his back, reject the pass and retreat into his own half at a jog. It was the point at which it felt like they had nothing left to offer. As it turned out, we were barely halfway done.
The evening began to take on an epic quality, even as both sides seemed to shrink from the fight. There were misplaced passes, ugly grapples, runs to nowhere and long balls to nobody. Rashford missed a golden chance. Villarreal howled for a handball penalty in the dying minutes. Solskjær hurriedly made the rest of his substitutions in extra time, like a man frantically using up the rest of his Clubcard vouchers before they expired. How might Juan Mata have influenced this slow-burning game? Sadly, we had to wait until the 123rd minute to find out.
And so to penalties. And really, what did it matter in the end? What could anybody, least of all United, possibly have learned from all this? If De Gea had saved one of his penalties, would it have served as evidence of their indomitable champion mentality? Of course not, no more than his miss encapsulated their frailty. The telling decisions had already been made, or perhaps not made.
Against the seventh-best team in La Liga, the second-best team in the Premier League simply blundered on in the hope that fate would reward them for being Manchester United. Instead, they remain trapped in a sort of suspended reality, a team of big moments who weirdly never seem to win the big moments, a club in eternal transition, convinced that this is the group, these are the players, this is the coach, but that next year is always the year.