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Manchester United stuttered over the finishing line in the Premier League, picking up just four points from their last four games in an unconvincing finish. But, the results mattered little in the context of their season.
United had all but sealed second place and had no hope of catching Manchester City by the time they welcomed Leicester to Old Trafford, so Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side can be forgiven for taking their foot off the gas. History tells us that this will not necessarily impact their performance in Wednesday’s Europa League final, despite the concerns of some pundits.
United went into the 2017 Europa League final off the back of the exact same sequence of results in their final four Premier League games and ended up putting in a commanding performance against Ajax in Stockholm. Solskjaer will hope for a similar showing from his charges four years on, as he seeks his first piece of silverware as United manager.
Wednesday 20:00 – Man United v Villarreal
BT Sport 1
His side have been patchy in Europe this season, equally capable of putting in excellent performances such as the 6-2 demolition of Roma or the 2-1 win in Paris as they are of putting in abject displays – such as the embarrassing 2-1 defeat in Istanbul or the forgettable 1-1 home draw with AC Milan.
They came up against a Villarreal outfit that has been equally patchy in recent months, winning three and losing five of their final eight league games as they stuttered to a seventh-place finish.
Their first leg against Arsenal was a microcosm of their patchy form, racing into a deserved 2-0 lead before coming under huge pressure once Arsenal were reduced to ten men. United should have just about enough to claim their second Europa League title on Wednesday night.
United and Villarreal met four times in the Champions League group stages during the 2000s. They drew 0-0 on all four occasions. However, it is unlikely that Wednesday’s final will be a repeat of those dour scoreless affairs considering both United and Villarreal have leaked goals at the back recently.
Despite coming in for a lot of scrutiny and criticism, Harry Maguire clearly held the United defence together and his absence in the final makes it hard to see United keeping a clean sheet.
They have conceded eight goals in the four league games that he has missed, only letting in four in their previous nine games with Maguire marshalling the defence. Villarreal, on the other hand, shipped 12 goals in their final eight games in La Liga and conceded the exact same number of goals as United (44) across the 38-game league campaign.
United have netted 33 goals in 14 European games this season, and it’s hard to see Villarreal’s porous defence containing them.
Cavani’s United career seemed to be dwindling to a disappointing conclusion following a series of injuries and ineffective performances in February and March, but he has been a different player since the international break.
His wondergoal against Fulham last week capped a period of supreme goalscoring form that saw him score a brace in both legs of the Europa League semi-final and put in a masterclass against Tottenham in a come-from-behind victory.
In all, Cavani has scored nine goals in his last ten appearances for United – more than he scored in his previous 28 – while he has scored seven goals in his last six starts.
He will bring plenty of experience to Wednesday’s final and will not be fazed by the occasion, meaning that he represents excellent value to score an all-important goal as United search for their first trophy in four years.
It’s not an understatement to say that Bruno Fernandes is the main reason why United find themselves in second place in the Premier League and in a European final.
The Portuguese midfielder’s arrival last January transformed United’s season, inspiring them to a Champions League finish, and he has carried his match-winning performances over to this term. Fernandes has scored 28 goals for United this season – including nine in the Champions League and Europa League – comfortably finishing the season as United’s top scorer.
Both Fernandes and Cavani have the opportunity to end their Europa League campaign as the competition’s top scorer if they can score in the final, despite only entering the tournament in the knockout stages.
It would be fitting if Fernandes could score a decisive goal in the final considering the transformative effect he has had on the Red Devils since his landed in England, and he is excellent value to do so.
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