Manchester United host Leeds United on the opening weekend of the Premier League season as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer aims to go one better than last season's second-place finish behind Manchester City.

The Red Devils won the corresponding fixture against Marcelo Bielsa's men 6-2 last season and they might fancy their chances of making a strong start this time around.

An October 23 meeting with Liverpool at Old Trafford is United's first of the campaign against a fellow "big six" side, although they will go on to face Tottenham, City, Chelsea and Arsenal before the end of November.

United have won three and drawn one of the past four Manchester derbies in the Premier League and are at the Etihad Stadium on March 5 after City travel across town on November 6.

Newcastle United away followed by back-to-back home games against Burnley and Wolves comprise a favourable-looking festive period from December 26 – January 1.

The always-anticipated trip to Anfield arrives on March 19, while United's last home game of the season is a potentially crunch clash with European champions Chelsea before a final-day trip to Crystal Palace.

Manchester United's 2021-22 fixtures in full:

14/08/2021 - Leeds United (h)
21/08/2021 - Southampton (a)
28/08/2021 - Wolves (a)
11/09/2021 - Newcastle United (h)
18/09/2021 - West Ham (a)
25/09/2021 - Aston Villa (h)
02/10/2021 - Everton (h)
16/10/2021 - Leicester City (a)
23/10/2021 - Liverpool (h)
30/10/2021 - Tottenham (a)
06/11/2021 - Manchester City (h)
20/11/2021 - Watford (a)
27/11/2021 - Chelsea (a)
30/11/2021 - Arsenal (h)
04/12/2021 - Crystal Palace (h)
11/12/2021 - Norwich City (a)
14/12/2021 - Brentford (a)
18/12/2021 - Brighton and Hove Albion (h)
26/12/2021 - Newcastle United (a)
28/12/2021 - Burnley (h)
01/01/2022 - Wolves (h)
15/01/2022 - Aston Villa (a)
22/01/2022 - West Ham (h)
08/02/2022 - Burnley (a)
12/02/2022 - Southampton (h)
19/02/2022 - Leeds United (a)
26/02/2022 - Watford (h)
05/03/2022 - Manchester City (a)
12/03/2022 - Tottenham (h)
19/03/2022 - Liverpool (a)
02/04/2022 - Leicester City (h)
09/04/2022 - Everton (a)
16/04/2022 - Norwich City (h)
23/04/2022 - Arsenal (a)
30/04/2022 - Brentford (h)
07/05/2022 - Brighton and Hove Albion (a)
15/05/2022 - Chelsea (h)
22/05/2022 - Crystal Palace (a)

Manchester City will begin their Premier League title defence at Tottenham.

Pep Guardiola's side won their third top-flight crown in four seasons in 2020-21 and there is likely to be plenty of intrigue in the build-up to the August 14 encounter at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, given Spurs striker Harry Kane has been touted as a potential replacement for Sergio Aguero.

Chelsea denied City European glory with a 1-0 win in last month's Champions League final and Thomas Tuchel's side start their bid to unseat Guardiola's men domestically by hosting Crystal Palace, who like Spurs remain without a manager.

Manchester United were runners-up last term and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's third full season in charge will launch with a mouth-watering clash against Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United at Old Trafford.

Newly promoted Brentford have a similarly eye-catching assignment at home to Arsenal, who have no European commitments for the first time since 1995-96.

Liverpool are also away to one of the newcomers in the form of Championship winners Norwich City, while Watford host Aston Villa on their top-flight return.

Tricky start for Guardiola, Tuchel facing January Blues

City claimed a first victory at Anfield since 2003 last season and Jurgen Klopp will enjoy his latest battle with Pep Guardiola on Merseyside on October 2, a week after the champions get their shot at revenge over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Those matches all come within City's first seven fixtures, which also include Arsenal visiting the Etihad Stadium on August 28, the same day Chelsea travel to Liverpool and a week after Mikel Arteta's men welcome the European champions.

The season's first Manchester United v Liverpool encounter comes at Old Trafford on October 23, two weeks before United host City in the Manchester derby.

The return meetings for those two rivalries are at Anfield on March 19 and the Etihad Stadium on March 5.

Those games could prove key to the title run-in, much like Chelsea's trip to Old Trafford on the penultimate weekend.

The Blues have a tough January schedule, with Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on New Year's Day, followed by City away a fortnight later and a home derby against Tottenham.

Spurs and Arsenal are each aiming to improve upon dispiriting campaigns last time around. The first north London derby of the season is at Emirates Stadium on September 25, with Tottenham hosting their neighbours on January 15.

 

Premier League opening weekend fixtures
Brentford v Arsenal
Burnley v Brighton and Hove Albion
Chelsea v Crystal Palace
Everton v Southampton
Leicester City v Wolves
Manchester United v Leeds United
Newcastle United v West Ham 
Norwich City v Liverpool
Tottenham v Manchester City
Watford v Aston Villa

Is David de Gea's time at Manchester United coming to an end?

De Gea has spent a decade with the Red Devils but his form has been scrutinised in recent years.

A swap involving Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak could solve United's problems.

 

TOP STORY – DE GEA OUT, OBLAK IN?

Manchester United are lining up a swap deal involving star goalkeeper David de Gea and Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak, according to The Sun.

De Gea's future has been uncertain since Dean Henderson signed a long-term contract extension at United, who remain uncertain about the pair.

Spain international De Gea joined United from Atletico in 2011 and the Red Devils are prepared to offer the LaLiga giants a reunion in exchange for star Oblak.

 

ROUND-UP

- TV3 reports Barcelona have offered Lionel Messi a new contract. Messi's current deal is due to expire on June 30 and the superstar captain has been linked with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.

Saul Niguez is adamant he wants to leave LaLiga champions Atletico and Juventus lead the race to sign the Spaniard, claims Marca. United – long-term admirers – Bayern Munich and PSG are also interested.

- PSG head coach Mauricio Pochettino is the favourite to replace Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, says the front page of Friday's Mundo Deportivo. Zidane has announced his departure. Former Inter boss Antonio Conte, Castilla coach and club great Raul and Xabi Alonso – currently in charge of Real Sociedad's reserve side – are also on the list. Pochettino has also been linked with a sensational return to Tottenham.

Barca have held talks regarding goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, according to Fabrizio Romano. Donnarumma's Milan contract is due to expire and his departure is already confirmed. After talking with agent Mino Raiola, Barca are set to decide whether to sign Donnarumma, who has also been linked with Juve and United.

- Premier League champions City are looking to smash their transfer record to bring in £100million-rated Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish, reports the Daily Mail. City are also interested in Tottenham's Harry Kane – a target for rivals United, Chelsea, Madrid and Barca.

- The Telegraph says United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is set to sign a new three-year contract in Manchester. Solskjaer guided United to a second-placed finish in the Premier League, while the club were stunned by Villarreal in the Europa League final this season.

Barca are close to completing free transfers for Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and Lyon star Memphis Depay, according to Mundo Deportivo. Ronald Koeman's men are also eyeing City's free agent pair Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia.

- FootMercato reports PSG have made an approach for star Milan full-back Theo Hernandez.

Chelsea and Tottenham both have strong interest in Borussia Monchengladbach attacker Jonas Hofmann, claims Sport1.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer identified his side's need to bolster their starting XI with two or three signings following their Europa League final defeat.

United lost 11-10 to Villarreal on penalties in Wednesday's decider in Gdansk after a 1-1 draw across 120 minutes – the Red Devils ending their 2020-21 season without a trophy.

Solskjaer's United have lost six of their last seven penalty shoot-outs in all competitions, only winning against Rochdale in the EFL Cup in September 2019 during that time.

Edinson Cavani – who cancelled out Gerard Moreno's first-half opener in the 55th minute – became just the third player aged 34 or above to score in a major European final for an English club, after Gary McAllister (36) for Liverpool in the UEFA Cup final against Deportivo Alaves in 2000-01 and Didier Drogba (34) for Chelsea in the Champions League final versus Bayern Munich in 2011-12.

Premier League giants United – who finished second behind neighbours Manchester City this term – have not won any silverware since 2017 and have been linked with a host of players to bolster their squad this off-season, including Tottenham star Harry Kane, Borussia Dortmund's Jadon Sancho and Villarreal centre-back Pau Torres.

"We've done as well as anyone could imagine," Solskjaer said during his post-game news conference. "We need to do better, we need to work better, harder, cleverer.

"Two or three players to strengthen the starting XI is important for us to go even further. I'm sure our contenders, challengers will also want to improve as well."

David de Gea's selection in the United XI was hotly debated, with competition from Dean Henderson – who played several of their late season Premier League matches.

Spain international De Gea was unable to make any saves during the shoot-out before seeing his own decisive penalty blocked by Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli as the Yellow Submarine won their first major European title.

"You go through every scenario and it has crossed my mind in the build up to the game, but we were confident in David," Solskjaer said, when asked if he considered bringing on Henderson to replace de Gea for the shoot-out. "I stuck with the keeper that played all the games."

Solskjaer conceded United's 2020-21 season, which is now over, was not a success given they failed to win a trophy and implored his side to find the will to improve.

The Red Devils lost in the EFL Cup semi-finals and FA Cup quarter-finals, while they were eliminated in the Champions League group stage.

Solskjaer pinpointed United's start to the Premier League, collecting only seven points from their first six games, as an area for improvement next term.

"That disappointment is the worst feeling," he said. "These are the moments you remember most.

"There are two ways, you can feel sorry for yourself or you can do something about it and come back stronger.

"We know that we didn't start this season great. We fell behind, too far behind. We need to start really well."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted Manchester United "didn't turn up" and their season cannot be deemed a success after they were beaten by Villarreal in the Europa League final.

David de Gea missed the only penalty of a marathon shoot-out at Gdansk Stadium, where Villarreal won their first major European trophy on Wednesday.

United goalkeeper De Gea's tame effort gave Villarreal an 11-10 victory on spot-kicks after the two sides were locked at 1-1 at the end of extra time in Poland midweek.

Gerard Moreno put the LaLiga side in front in the first half with his 30th goal of the season and his 82nd for the club, matching a record tally of 82nd that was also achieved by Giuseppe Rossi.

Edinson Cavani equalised 10 minutes into the second half, but United were unable to claim their first trophy under Solskjaer.

Unai Emery, on the other hand, became the first manager to win either the UEFA Cup or UEFA Europa League four times, surpassing Giovanni Trapattoni's haul, having won this competition three times with Sevilla.

Solskjaer knows the Red Devils were not good enough and must raise the bar next season after falling short yet again.

The United boss told BT Sport: "It's a quiet, disappointed dressing room. That's football for you. Sometimes it's decided on one kick - and that’s the difference between winning and losing.

"We have to learn from that one, not savour this feeling but taste this feeling and make sure we don't get it again.

"We didn't turn up. We didn't play as well as we know we can. We started alright and they got the goal, their only shot on target. We were disappointed to concede a goal on a set play.

"We pushed, we pressed, we got a goal. After we scored we didn't control the game or dominate as we wanted. They made it hard for us, they closed spaces. We had the majority of possession. They defended well. We didn't create enough big chances."

Solskjaer, who named Harry Maguire and Fred among the substitutes with neither player fully fit, did not make changes until extra time.

Yet the former Norway striker, who guided United to a second-placed Premier League finish this season, said: "Now is not the time to point the finger at what I'd have done differently. But when you come out without the trophy you haven't done everything right.

"We're getting closer and closer and better. We were one kick away from a trophy and a good night.

"We have to have the desire to come back next year and improve. The only way to get the margins your side is to work harder and better."

Asked if this season has been a success, Solskjaer frankly replied: "No."

He added: "We need to get better, simple as. We've done really well this season coming through. The start was difficult. We had no pre-season and lost three of the first six.

"We pushed in the league, maybe got closer to the top than we thought and we got to a final. But you need to win the finals to make it a good season."

Eric Bailly has warned Manchester United he will only remain at Old Trafford as long as he is a first-team regular, despite last month signing a contract extension.

The centre-back's new deal keeps him at United until 2024, when his previous contract had been set to expire at the end of next season.

But Bailly suggests that agreement will count for little if he remains on the fringes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team.

The ex-Villarreal defender, who hopes to face his former club in Wednesday's Europa League final, has featured in only 20 (33.3 per cent) of United's 60 games in all competitions so far this season, ranking 19th in the Red Devils squad.

And that mark is roughly par for Bailly's United career, having appeared in only 105 (35.7 per cent) and started just 92 (31.3 per cent) of the 294 matches the club have played since his 2016 signings.

Injuries have played their part, with knee and groin issues keeping the player out for extended periods over the past five years, but he has been an unused substitute 18 times this term alone.

This season's 1,590 minutes are Bailly's most since his debut campaign in England (3,230) but still trail Harry Maguire (4,653) and Victor Lindelof (3,908) by some distance.

"Competition is always good to improve," Bailly told The Times. "I just say that I want to stay in case I get the chance to play.

"I don't want to be a starter one game and a substitute for another five.

"If that happens, I will have to look for another solution. The new contract is fine but if I don't play I will be open to listen to other proposals."

Only 39 of Bailly's United outings have come since Solskjaer was appointed in December 2018, in which time the 20-time English champions have played 150 times.

But the defender, who has therefore featured in just 26.0 per cent of the manager's games, was encouraged by discussions prior to signing the contract extension.

"I spoke to him and he told me he wanted me to stay," Bailly added.

"The most important thing was not the renewal but the conversation we had: we sat down, we talked and he told me what he wanted from me and that he wanted me to continue."

Unai Emery insists the idea of "revenge" will not be in his thought process against Manchester United as his past difficulties with Arsenal continue to draw focus.

For the first time in Villarreal's history, they will contest a major European final on Wednesday when Emery's team go up against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Red Devils.

But the coach's previous work at Arsenal remains a talking point ahead of the Europa League final in Gdansk, with Emery often ridiculed by English football fans and sections of the media during his time in London.

He got one over on his old club in the semi-finals, however, with his team seeing off Arsenal to end Villarreal's European drought – the Yellow Submarine had been eliminated in each of their previous four semi-finals, UEFA Cup/Europa League semis in 2004, 2011 and 2016 and the Champions League final four in 2006.

Emery guided Arsenal to the Europa League final in 2019 before he was sacked by the Gunners in November that year, replaced by fellow Spaniard Mikel Arteta.

In fact, since the competition's rebranding in 2009-10, Emery has reached the Europa League final on more occasions than any other head coach (five – 2014, 2015, 2016, 2019 and 2021). The Spaniard has won the trophy on three of the previous four occasions he has reached the showpiece, all with Sevilla.

Now he is aiming to achieve success with Villarreal, though he insists any desire to win the trophy has nothing to do with the fact his opponents are English.

"Not at all," he told reporters when asked whether "revenge" was on the cards. "I feel an obligation to Villarreal, this badge, this club, this president.

"I am proud to be able to defend this Villarreal project. There is no revenge with the English teams or people. I am proud to play in this final defending Villarreal’s colours."

Diego Forlan, who played for both clubs during his impressive career, stressed in an interview with Stats Perform that United are not favourites for the match, despite the general consensus suggesting otherwise.

Emery accepts "history and experience" are on United's side, adding that most would have considered them front-runners at the start of the knockout stage.

Yet he is in no doubt that the Yellow Submarine have more than a fighting chance.

"We cannot escape reality. A few months ago we said Man United were among the favourites for the competition," Emery said. "Now we are in the same situation, but we are firm candidates for this title and play against the favourites.

"They have good players, history and experience, but we have a very strong recent history to deserve these moments."

Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw are adamant Manchester United do not need any form of motivation or inspiration from the club's iconic former manager Alex Ferguson ahead of Wednesday's Europa League final.

United face Villarreal in Gdansk as they look to win their first piece of silverware since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced Jose Mourinho in December 2018.

Solskjaer's former boss Ferguson is staying in the same hotel as the United squad and has been particularly prominent in the media of late, granting numerous interviews after largely avoiding the press in his eight years since retirement.

Ferguson led United to two Champions League successes – among many other titles – during his storied reign at the club, therefore knows plenty about the pressures and emotions that come with such occasions.

But Shaw and Fernandes stressed they are in no need of any extra motivation or pep talks from Ferguson as they look to sink the Yellow Submarine.

Speaking to the media, Shaw said: "I wouldn't expect him to speak to us. I am sure we don't need people to inspire us for the game tomorrow, as much of a legend as he [Ferguson] is.

"Inside our group we need to do that ourselves. Of course, I'm sat next to the manager now and I am sure he'll be doing that tomorrow, so I'm not sure we'll be seeing too much of Sir Alex tomorrow."

Fernandes continued: "I think we have a coach who passed a lot of time with Alex Ferguson so everything he could say to us, he [Solskjaer] already knows. We trust our coach.

"The team is confident. We trust ourselves, we know what we have to do. This is our moment to do our best.

"We trained well the days before, we have another day to train. Make the job tomorrow, enjoy the moment – being in the final is not for everyone."

It will be United's first European final since the 2016-17 edition of this competition, when they defeated Ajax 2-0 under Mourinho – before that they had gone nine years without a trophy in Europe.

Even reaching the final this time around is something of a milestone, particularly for Solskjaer, as United's record in semi-finals prior to their two-legged tie with Roma was poor under the Norwegian.

The 8-5 aggregate win over Roma ended a run of four successive semi-final eliminations for United under Solskjaer, whose only other final as a manager was in the 2013 Norwegian Cup, and the club's players will relish the chance to end their trophy drought.

"We come to this club because we want to win. It doesn't matter if the club doesn't win for many years, the hope is still there," Fernandes said.

"Trophies are part of this club. Every player knows he will come to United to fight for trophies, to be a better player.

"If you look to history, you have to look to the history, pressure is part of your life. I like the pressure, that's good for me.

"The most important for us is to try to win the game. Everything can happen, but we can control some stuff. Most importantly, the team is growing up and tomorrow will be a sign of that."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hopes the presence of Sir Alex Ferguson will help inspire his Manchester United players to "take the next step" by winning the Europa League.

Legendary former manager Ferguson, who won 38 trophies in 26 years at Old Trafford, has travelled with the United squad to Gdansk ahead of Wednesday's final with Villarreal 

The Red Devils face Spanish side Villarreal seeking their first silverware since Solskjaer took over from Jose Mourinho in December 2018, initially on a caretaker basis.

It also marks just Solskjaer's second final as a manager, having won the 2013 Norwegian Cup with Molde, where he also lifted the Tippeligaen in 2011 and 2012.

After ending his curse of losing in four cup semi-finals as United boss, Solskjaer believes a first trophy for his current crop of players can be a springboard for further success.

"Of course, when players get the taste of success, it can go one of two ways," Solskjaer said at Tuesday's pre-match news conference. 

"Now we've done it, or how I felt before, it gives you that feeling of being hungry for more. You want that feeling again. 

"For this group, working hard for a year or two, it's a next step for them now to go and enjoy a game like this.

"These are big nights for us. It might be the stepping stone for something better to come. This team is a young team, a team that we've rebuilt. 

"Hopefully this is the start of something more. Sir Alex is with us, the 26th of May is Sir Matt [Busby]'s birthday. 

"When the players sign for Manchester United, they sign to win, to accept the challenge of being the best. 

"This is the best club of the world, this is the pleasure of the pressure. They wouldn't have signed if they weren't top players."

Asked about Ferguson's role in United's preparations, Solskjaer said: "He flew out with us yesterday. Some of us went to see his documentary.

"I sat there thinking about this special man. He's an encyclopaedia of football. When we eat in the restaurant, if the players wonder about something, they can ask him. 

"He's always available. I hope he's going to enjoy it as well. I owe most of my career to him and this club."

Wednesday's match will be United's eighth major European final, which is the second-most of any English club after Liverpool (14).

United, who have won five of those previous seven finals, are expected to be without key man Harry Maguire against Villarreal as the defender continues to nurse an ankle injury.

Maguire was included in United's squad, despite missing his side's final four league games of the season, but Solskjaer is not overly confident the centre-back will be ready to feature.

"We've prepared well," Solskjaer said. "Anthony [Martial] didn't make it, Phil [Jones] of course didn't make it and Harry is just probably going to jog up and down the sideline [in training].

"He'll probably try to join in the training session a little but apart from that we're looking quite good.

"It's always difficult to leave players out. But throughout the whole season, a final is a reward for what you've done the whole season.

"We'll enjoy the last training session and the players will learn the team tomorrow."

United rounded off their Premier League campaign with a 2-1 win at Wolves to finish in second place, 12 points behind runaway champions Manchester City.

Solskjaer is pleased with the progress made season-on-season and insists his players will be ready for the huge showdown with Unai Emery's Villarreal.

"I've got enough self-belief in myself, whatever circumstances I've been in," he said.  "I trust in the players, who I know are ready. I've seen in them something growing.

"I'm confident that we're ready for this now. Every player who goes into a final has the pressure to win. You have to play to win, we expect to win, but I'm sure Unai feels the same. 

"It's been a long qualification to get here and it's 50-50. I feel confident that we are ready for this. In a final, anything can happen and we have to be ready for everything."

United are facing Villarreal for a fifth time, with each of the previous four meetings – all in the Champions League between 2005-06 and 2008-09 – finishing goalless 

The Red Devils have faced Villarreal more times without ever scoring than they have any other opponent in their history.

While it will not be the main item on the agenda, it is fair to say that Manchester United's centre-back strength will be under the microscope in Wednesday's Europa League final against Villarreal.

Of course, any apparent issues at the back will be drowned out – at least initially – if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer guides United to their first piece of silverware during his tenure.

However, as the game approaches, it is at the heart of their defence where United's biggest problem lies, with Harry Maguire unlikely to be fit for the game.

Love him or loathe him, there is little doubt Maguire has been United's best – and certainly most present – centre-back since he joined the club in 2019, with the defeat to his former club Leicester City earlier this month the first Premier League game he had missed for the Red Devils.

He did not feature in any of the final four league fixtures and, even though he has travelled to Gdansk, a starting role seems highly unlikely.

Therefore, it will either be down to former Villarreal man Eric Bailly or Axel Tuanzebe to partner Victor Lindelof – either way, it is hardly the most convincing of partnerships.

If United are to bridge the gap to Manchester City, it has been a long-held belief of many pundits and columnists that centre-back is one of the few areas they have significant room for improvement in, with the options available in Maguire's absence highlighting that.

Up against them on Wednesday will be Pau Torres, a central defender who has been linked with some of the world's biggest clubs, including United. Could he be the long-term answer they are looking for?

The playmaker at centre-back

Maguire has enjoyed a solid season for United, his influence at the back made all the more notable in the two matches they have lost without him. The main question mark is over the man next to him, which is usually Lindelof.

For a period last year, it appeared as though United would try to bring in a left-footed centre-back to partner Maguire, who would be allowed to shift back to the right side of the pairing.

Nathan Ake seemed an obvious candidate given Bournemouth's relegation and the fact Solskjaer appeared to indicate his interest in the Dutchman after a game against the Cherries – his comments caught by a nearby television camera.

He went to Manchester City instead, but Torres has a similar profile in that he is a left-footed centre-back who is praised for his ability on the ball.

Playing out from the back has been a frequent aspect of United's play under Solskjaer, and Torres would certainly fit in – his tally of 747 forward passes in LaLiga this term were bettered by only Jules Kounde (918) and Clement Lenglet (812) in terms of fellow defenders.

Where he does better than both, however, is bringing the ball out of defence. His 432 progressive carries – movements that take the ball more than five metres upfield – is 42 more than any other LaLiga defender, while he has carried the ball 4,784.4 metres up the pitch, again a high for the league.

This has even translated into having an attacking influence, with his two assists at the end of a carry only bettered by Jose Gaya – a full-back – among defenders. In fact, he's the only centre-back to get more than one assist in this fashion.

It all demonstrates how useful and reliable Torres can be for a team that wants to build from deep. Stylistically at least, it would seem the Spain international could be a great fit for United.

Room to grow, or not enough of an upgrade?

Despite the acclaim Torres has received over the past two seasons, there are those unconvinced by some of his defensive skills.

He has been accused of being too prone to making snap decisions, which does not tend to bring positive results for him in one-on-one situations, while it has also been pointed out that his communication with a partner can be poor, especially when it comes to offside traps.

The other potential issue is, while Torres is undoubtedly a wonderful player technically and arguably the most gifted centre-back in that regard in Spain, his weaknesses are similar to those already seen from Lindelof during his time at Old Trafford.

The problem many have with Lindelof is that he too often appears uneasy in physical confrontations, while also looking uncomfortable against nimble forwards.

Torres is athletic – tall, quick and strong, but he still seems unsure how best to use those physical traits at times, and his defensive numbers are not an upgrade on Lindelof.

The Sweden international averages more aerial challenges (3.5) and aerial wins (2.2) per 90 minutes than Torres (2.7 and 1.7) in the 2020-21 season, while their frequency of being involved in duels is very similar: 5.8 for Lindelof and 5.5 per game for Torres.

Torres does win more of those duels on average (3.4 to 3.3), but the difference is negligible. As for their respective abilities to sniff out danger, Lindelof also comes out on top with regards to interceptions, averaging 1.1 per game to Torres' 0.7.

Such metrics can often be skewed when an individual – in this case Lindelof – is playing for a team expecting to spend more time in possession against most opponents they come up against.

It underlines that Torres is generally a passive centre-back, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as Maguire is rather different, but it is a key aspect United would have to take into consideration if they are to make a move for him.

The caveat for Torres' blind spots, however, is that he is still only 24 and 2020-21 is just his second full season in LaLiga – he does have plenty of time to develop.

His exceptional technical skills at least provide him with a solid platform to build from, but would the other side of his game mean he would be considered an upgrade over Lindelof?

The Europa League final will be his final audition and an opportunity to prove how his strengths outweigh any weaknesses.

For the first time under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United are preparing for a final.

The Europa League might not be top of the agenda for Solskjaer's United ambitions but, after four semi-final defeats as manager in three different competitions, he will be delighted to have a shot at what could be the Red Devils' first trophy since they won this competition in 2017.

Of course, this is also a momentous occasion for Villarreal: a first European final of any kind against a team who have been in these matches seven times previously. However, the Spaniards boast experience in coach Unai Emery, who won this trophy on three occasions while in charge of Sevilla.

Ahead of the first major final in European competition this week, Stats Perform examines the key Opta data...

The Coaches

When it comes to experience at this stage, Emery certainly has the edge.

The former Arsenal boss lifted this trophy three years in a row from 2014 to 2016 and could become the first coach to win either the UEFA Cup or Europa League four times.

Solskjaer, however, has contested only one final in his managerial career: he won the 2013 Norwegian Cup with Molde. Indeed, no Norwegian coach has ever won a major European trophy.

Emery and Solskjaer have faced off twice before in the Premier League, when the Spaniard was at Arsenal. The Gunners won 2-0 at Emirates Stadium in March 2019, ending Solskjaer's unbeaten league start at United, before a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in September of that year.

However, it was Solskjaer who came out on top when they met in a knockout fixture, United triumphing 3-1 in north London in an FA Cup tie in January 2019. Their goals in that tie came from Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial - none of whom will be involved in Gdansk.

The Records

While Emery is chasing history of his own, Villarreal are hoping to become the 10th Spanish team in a row to defeat an English side in a European final - a run that includes United losing twice to Barcelona in the Champions League.

United have found it tough going against the Yellow Submarine in the past. In fact, the Red Devils have faced Villarreal more often without scoring than any other side in their history, with each of their previous four meetings ending 0-0.

However, United have won five of the seven major European finals they have contested (only Liverpool, with 14, have been in more among English sides). A win would secure the 67th trophy in their history, extending their lead over Liverpool (65) when it comes to England's most successful clubs.

The Star Names

All eyes will be on Bruno Fernandes in his first final for United.

The Portugal star has played 57 times this season, more than anyone else in Europe's top-five leagues, providing 28 goals and 18 assists. Only four players across those top leagues have been directly involved in more goals. His 137 chances created surpasses anyone else.

Wednesday could also see Mason Greenwood make his first career appearance in a final. Should he score, he would become only the second English teenager to do so in a major European final, the first being Brian Kidd, who netted on his 19th birthday when United beat Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final.

At the other end of the career spectrum sits Edinson Cavani, who has averaged a goal or assist every 35 minutes in this season's Europa League, the best return of anyone to play at least 200 minutes in the competition.

Cavani, who has 10 league goals in just 13 starts in his first season with the club, is bidding to become the third player aged 34 or over to score in a major European final for an English side, after Gary McAllister in the 2001 UEFA Cup final and Didier Drogba in the 2012 Champions League final.

Carlos Bacca has history in this fixture, having scored twice in the final six years ago for Sevilla. The Colombian could become the first player to score in a major European final for two teams from the same nation since Hernan Crespo, who was on target for Parma in 1999 and then Milan in 2005.

Villarreal's main threat will likely come through Gerard Moreno. With 29 goals and 10 assists in all competitions, he has been the most dangerous Spanish forward in Europe this term. Indeed, Lionel Messi (50) is the only player from LaLiga with more direct goal involvements.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists he is "ever the optimist" but does not expect Manchester United captain Harry Maguire to be fit for the Europa League final.

Maguire hurt his ankle in the 3-1 win at Aston Villa on May 9 and missed his side's final four Premier League matches of the season.

The England international has had to use a protective boot during his recovery but has not been definitively ruled out of Wednesday's match with Villarreal in Gdansk.

However, Solskjaer admits it is unlikely Maguire will be able to come through a full training session in Poland in just 48 hours' time.

"I will wait for Wednesday," the United manager said after Sunday's 2-1 win at Wolves. "Maybe see if he can run on Tuesday but it is still a bit away. I don't expect him to be ready.

"Of course, he wants to play but it is going to be up to the doctor. I don't expect him to be ready. It does not look great but, ever the optimist, I am still hopeful.

"He has to train on Tuesday when we are over there. It is not many days. I don't expect him to be ready."

United's win at Molineux saw them become only the third different club to go an entire top-flight season in England without losing an away game, after Preston North End (1888-89) and Arsenal twice (2001-02 and 2003-04).

Solskjaer chose to rest several key first-team players ahead of Wednesday's final, handing starts to back-ups such as Brandon Williams, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata, as well as youngsters Amad Diallo and Anthony Elanga, while Will Fish and Hannibal Mejbri made their senior debuts as late substitutes.

Elanga broke the deadlock with his first Premier League goal before Mata's penalty secured the win after Nelson Semedo had equalised.

Solskjaer said he may well have fielded a stronger side had United been able to play a day earlier, as Villarreal did.

"If we had played yesterday I would probably have picked a different team. I am glad I didn't because it's the first win I have had here," he said.

"Fair play to LaLiga, moving seven games just for Villarreal to have another day of preparation. They could have played tonight and rested players against Real Madrid, it could have been a different result and you never know what that would have changed.

"Good by them and we have to think about it ourselves, definitely. We did not ask the Premier League but of course, whenever we can help our own teams we should do it."

Even with Maguire likely to be sidelined, Solskjaer still hopes he can win his maiden trophy as United boss in what will be his first final since his return to the club in late 2018.

"You always feel pressure at Man United to win things, win trophies," he said. "That is one of the steps. Sometimes a trophy can hide other imperfections but the progress in the league, that we have been in loads of semi-finals, it shows progress.

"But the next step for this team is to win trophies and challenge the champions in the Premier League as well.

"When you win things, you just want to win more. You want to feel that sensation. I know my players will believe but when you get the taste of that first one, it is a big step in the right direction. It is that taste for it. The belief is there, for sure."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will discuss Juan Mata's Manchester United future with the Spanish playmaker after admitting he does not give him enough game time.

Mata earned a rare start in Sunday's Premier League season-finale 2-1 victory at Wolves, in which he scored the winning penalty on the stroke of half-time, as Solskjaer made wholesale changes with an eye on the Europa League final against Villarreal.

It was only Mata's 10th start and 17th appearance in total across all competitions this season and the former Chelsea star is out of contract next month.

Asked if talks with Mata are happening, United boss Solskjaer told BT Sport: "Yeah we are talking to Juan, we'll sit down and of course it's a bit what he wants as well. 

"I don't give him enough game time, he's such a top professional so we'll have that discussion."

For his part, Mata remains unsure as to the outcome of those contract discussions, but the 33-year-old is adamant he still has plenty to offer.

"I don't know, I don't really know. In three days we have a very important game which is where my mind is at the moment. I still feel I can give a lot for the team. That's my mentality," Mata said.

"It's not the moment now to speak about it. I know what I want, I'm happy with how I feel physically and mentally. I'm hungry to play football for more years, the club know that, so…"

With the Villarreal game to come on Wednesday, Solskjaer took the chance to rest his regular XI and mixed some of his more experienced pros with promising youngsters at Molineux.

Among those was Anthony Elanga, who impressed in attack alongside Adam Diallo and Daniel James for United and opened the scoring for his first United goal prior to Nelson Semedo's equaliser.

"I'm sure he will [remember that]," Solskjaer said of Elanga.

"He could have had two before, just being confident enough to get in there. I'm very pleased for him and he's got a bright future ahead of him."

It wasn't too long ago that the idea of Mason Greenwood getting into Gareth Southgate's England squad was farfetched.

After a stunning breakthrough campaign in 2019-20 that saw him score 10 times in the Premier League, 2020-21 got off to a difficult start for the teenager.

It took him until December to score his first league goal of the season, and it took him a little over four months to net again.

Although he was in England contention at the start of the season, such form had seemingly seen him fall well out of the reckoning. When he was unsurprisingly absent from the March selection, few eyebrows were raised.

After all, it was back in September when Greenwood – having just won his first senior cap against Iceland – was involved in controversy involving two local girls being brought to the team hotel. He and Phil Foden were subsequently sent home and left out of the next squad.

But Foden was swiftly recalled in November having impressed early on, and he looks set to take on a key role at the Euros such has been his influence at Premier League champions Manchester City.

It's a slightly different scenario for the similarly talented Greenwood, and the reality is he will probably miss out, but his return form has at least given him a chance.

Perseverance and focus

As previously mentioned, Greenwood's form really suffered in the first part of the season, and that seemed to linger well into this year.

When considering what went wrong, it's of course natural to look at his performances and on-pitch habits.

For example, shot map data earlier in the season suggested he has potentially been found out by defenders. He wreaked havoc in 2019-20 when cutting inside on to his left foot and shooting, but it looked as though opponents had become wise to this, forcing him outside more often.

That's one theory – another worth considering is the human side of football. Let's not forget, Greenwood – a teenager – went through a lot last year.

There was the death of a close friend, the controversy on England duty and subsequent vilification of him from certain sections of the British media. All of that would be difficult for anyone to contend with, let alone a kid of 18 or 19 years.

Perhaps then it was just a matter of time, patience and perseverance for him to get back to his best, which he appears to be on the evidence of the past six weeks or so.

The fact we are even talking about his chances of going to the Euros is a triumph for Greenwood in itself.

From drought to downpour

Greenwood went on a run of 15 appearances without a single goal from late January, but he ended that barren spell against Leicester City on March 21.

Life has been rather different for him since then, finding himself back among the goals in the Premier League on April 4, netting the late winner as United defeated Brighton and Hove Albion 2-1 with a diving header.

That's one of six league goals in a run of eight matches, more than any other English forward in that time, netting at a rate of once every 88 minutes – by comparison, Harry Kane's recent form has him scoring every 125.8 minutes in the league.

Greenwood is once again showing the kind of killer-instinct in front of goal that made him so feared in 2019-20, when he scored 17 goals across all competitions.

Ten of those came in the league from an expected goals (xG) value of just 2.9, meaning he scored 7.1 goals more than expected. No player in the division could match that xG overperformance.

This would generally indicate elite-level finishing or a player getting lucky. Greenwood's form earlier this season suggested it was the latter, but since April 4 his xG overperformance in the league is 2.6 – the next best in this regard is Danny Ings (1.9 overperformance).

However, the caveat is that Greenwood's expected goals on target (xGOT) of 2.7 is lower than his xG of 3.4, suggesting that he's actually been a little fortunate, benefiting from goalkeeping errors, for instance.

For example, against Burnley his goal took a deflection en route to goal, while his effort against Aston Villa went in off the hand of Emiliano Martinez.

In terms of the difference between his xG and xGOT, Greenwood actually ranks poorly when compared to his rivals for a place in the England squad since April 4, with Ollie Watkins' 3.95 xGOT better than his 3.0 xG, which suggests his four goals have come about via good finishing because he has outperformed the underlying quality of his chances.

Ings, Kane and Marcus Rashford have also done better than Greenwood in this area of late, however the counter-argument would be that the teenager perhaps creates his own luck with unpredictable play on the ball and his comfort with either foot.

Southgate will make his decision regarding the squad on Tuesday, and Greenwood is likely still seen as an outsider, but there's no question he has given the manager food for thought.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.