Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli kept his composure to score in a nerve-shredding, seemingly never-ending shootout then denied David de Gea as his side won their first major trophy by beating Manchester United 11-10 on penalties in the Europa League final on Wednesday.
After a tense encounter finished 1-1 following extra time, Argentine Rulli stepped up after every on-field player scored their spot kicks and he comfortably beat Spaniard De Gea, who finally buckled under the pressure in the unfamiliar role of taking rather than facing a penalty.
In the first European final to be played in front of a crowd in two years amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Villarreal survived a tough second half before going on to edge the longest shootout in any European final.
The win gave Villarreal coach Unai Emery a record fourth title in the competition, leaving United without a trophy since their Europa League triumph in 2017.
Gerard Moreno stretched to reach Dani Parejo’s free kick and steered the ball past De Gea to open the scoring in the 29th minute, only for United to level when Edinson Cavani poked the ball home after collecting Marcus Rashford’s deflected shot on 55 minutes.
“This is a dream come true, in these moments we can all remember how hard we’ve worked to go down in the club’s history books,” said goalscorer Moreno.
“We wanted to make history and we did it. We played so well in extra time and our fans helped us in the shootout.”
The shootout win also booked Villarreal’s place in next season’s Champions League, saving them from competing in the new UEFA Conference League which they had qualified for by finishing seventh in La Liga.
United coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said his players had to remember the pain of the defeat for the future.
“They made it hard for us, we had the majority of possession but they defended well, we didn’t create enough big chances,” he added.
United forward Rashford said the club had passed up a great opportunity.
“In one word, it’s disappointing,” he said.
“But there’s no chance this team will give up, we’ll come back next season with a bigger desire.”
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
Villarreal were playing their first ever major final and coach Emery recognised United were favourites due to their more storied history, but urged his side to “keep breaking down barriers” after four semi-final exits.
Emery is renowned for his diligent study of opponents and although United made the stronger start, his side managed to minimise their strengths, ensuring Bruno Fernandes was deprived of space to create danger and Cavani had little wiggle room.
Their only chances in the first half were wayward shots from Scott McTominay and Luke Shaw and while Villarreal did not exactly sparkle, they made their one chance count from a free kick given away by Cavani.
It was Moreno’s 30th goal of the season and saw him become Villarreal’s joint-top scorer of all-time alongside Giuseppe Rossi.
United continued to take the initiative after the interval and levelled with a scrappy goal as Rashford volleyed against a crowd of bodies following a corner and the ball deflected into the path of Cavani, who stroked it into an unguarded net.
Villarreal were the better side in the first half of extra time after Emery made all five changes before fulltime, contrasting with Solskjaer, who did not make his first change until the 100th minute.
The five substitutes he did make all scored their penalties in an enthralling shootout but the 11th kick was a bridge too far for De Gea.