What an unbelievable night. The 2020/21 Europa League final will go down in history as one of the most dramatic ever, with Villarreal CF overcoming Manchester United in a penalty shootout in which all 22 players had to step up to the spot. After an incredible 21 successful penalties out of 21, Gerónimo Rulli saved from his counterpart David de Gea to secure the Yellow Submarine’s first ever major trophy.
That save means that the Europa League trophy is staying in LaLiga, after Sevilla overcame Inter Milan in the 2020 final. Since the UEFA Cup was rebranded as the Europa League in 2009, eight of the 12 seasons have ended with a LaLiga Santander side lifting the famous cup. Sevilla have won it four times and Atlético de Madrid three times, before Villarreal’s first-ever success this year.
Villarreal coach Unai Emery has been behind four of these Spanish triumphs. The Basque tactician won three in a row with Sevilla (2014, 2015, 2016) then steered Villarreal to glory in the final in Gdansk this Wednesday.
The Yellow Submarine didn’t lose a single match in the competition this season, making them more than worthy winners. Star forward Gerard Moreno ended as the tournament’s joint top scorer with seven goals, followed by teammate Paco Alcacer as joint second top scorer (6). Moreno was also the season’s joint top assist provider (5), tied with Villarreal teammate and Nigerian international Samuel Chukwueze – who unfortunately missed out on the final through injury.
It’s an incredible achievement for Villarreal, a club which only reached Spain’s top flight for first time in 1998 and which hails from a town of just 50,000 people. Sound management, commitment to the academy and continually intelligent investment in the transfer market have seen the club establish themselves as one of LaLiga Santander’s continually strongest sides and a regular in European competition. Yet, few expected them to win a European trophy against a historic giant like Manchester United.
LaLiga sides have always fared well in the competition. In fact, looking back across its entire history, Spanish teams have won it 13 times, four more than any other nation. European football, generally, has been dominated by LaLiga teams in recent years. The 2021 UEFA Super Cup, which pits together the Champions League and Europa League winners, will be the 11th in the past 13 years to feature at least one Spanish team.
What’s more Spain will have five representatives in next season’s Champions League. Villarreal will qualify as Europa League winners, alongside Atletico de Madrid, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Sevilla FC. Real Sociedad and Real Betis, meanwhile, will play in the Europa League, aspiring to follow in Villarreal’s footsteps.
Villarreal’s win means that they, Atleti, Barcelona, Real Sociedad, Athletic Club, Sevilla and Real Madrid have each won a major trophy in the past 12 months, a fact that shows just how competitive Spanish football is at this moment in time and how much variety there is on the highest steps of the sport’s podiums.
The club from Spain’s east coast have shown that even the humblest sides can aspire to be champions in Europe. Their ambition, hard work and patience have now been rewarded with a night that will never, ever be forgotten.