Liverpool are firm favourites to overcome Villarreal and reach the Champions League final but in Unai Emery they face a serial cup-winner, who stunned Bayern Munich and vanquished Juventus as underdogs on the way here.
“They have probably the most successful cup competition manager in world football so he knows what he is doing,” warned Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp, fully aware of his opposite number’s quality.
“Unai Emery is the king of the cups. It is unbelievable what he is doing.”
The Basque coach won the Europa League three years running with Sevilla between 2014-and 16, lifted it a record fourth-time last season with Villarreal and in 2019 finished runners-up with Arsenal.
Emery also won the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue twice each while in charge of Paris Saint-Germain and has made a name for himself as a formidable opponent in life-or-death competitions.
In domestic divisions, Emery led PSG to Ligue 1 in 2017-18, but apart from that has not enjoyed the same success as he has in tournament football, something he has become a specialist in.
One reason is quite simple – desire.
At Sevilla and Villarreal in particular, the Europa League has been valued higher than it is at other clubs. It’s a tournament Emery and his teams want to win, while elsewhere it is sometimes held in lesser regard.
“I’m in love with the Europa League,” admitted the coach this season, although now his sights are set on a higher goal.
He credits a chat with Sevilla’s then-president Jose Maria del Nido in 2013 for changing his mindset.
“I told him the objective was to get into the Champions League as I’d done at Valencia,” said Emery. “He asked me if I had won any trophies. If I had celebrated them. Now I understand why he said that to me.”
While some opponents in the competition are playing with their strongest side at the weekend on home soil before rotating in Europe, for Villarreal this year, it’s the other way around.
Without a title challenge to maintain and the top four almost out of sight, all of the team’s hopes of glory are pinned on the cups.
None of the XI Emery selected against Bayern in the 1-1 second-leg draw in Munich had started the La Liga clash with Athletic Club four days earlier.
The Yellow Submarine, Sevilla and Arsenal are all capable of fighting with bigger, stronger opponents on a one-off basis, but over the course of the season are bound to finish behind giants like Barcelona and Real Madrid, or Liverpool and Manchester City.
Villarreal are seventh in La Liga this season and have been hit and miss, but took Chelsea to penalties in the UEFA Super Cup, drew 2-2 with Atletico Madrid twice, and 0-0 against Real Madrid twice.
With heavy focus on individual games, Villarreal are capable of battling with any side. A lot of that comes down to Emery’s tactical attention to detail.
“We’ve got Unai Emery as the captain leading the ship and he always comes up with a master plan,” forward Arnaut Danjuma told The Guardian.
“When you play Juventus in the away leg, you know if you don’t concede they will get a bit impatient. We knew an opportunity would present itself. That’s what happened, what Unai predicted.
“He is busy with me on a daily basis and I have a lot of conversations with him about how to better myself. He is a strategy mastermind.”
It’s a demonstration of the level of belief the squad have in their coach, which he didn’t get at Arsenal or in Paris, for myriad reasons, including language issues.
“I think that a coach’s era at a club doesn’t end when they don’t win titles, but when the squad stops believing in him,” said Emery in 2016.
The 50-year-old is keen on giving his players every weapon available to them in terms of information about opponents and drilling specific tactical approaches for different games.
While concentration can wane in the league across 38 weeks, the one-off nature of cup games, with everything at stake, is a big incentive to watch the videos Emery and his staff provide and prepare as diligently as possible.
“I am sure that whatever situation that could come up for Villarreal in the final was already predicted by Unai,” former Sevilla defender Coke told El Pais after Villarreal beat Manchester United to win the Europa League last season.
“He studies each detail on video and then he brings it to the pitch.”
As a player, Emery loved the sport but was afraid. “I felt the pressure a lot and I was a bit of a coward,” he admitted in his book Winning Mentality.
Now, as a coach, his preparation keeps him up until the early hours, covering every base so there’s nothing left to be surprised by or fearful of.
The coach and his staff watched their own games four times while at Sevilla, and he is no less thorough now. “The more information you have, the better you can decide,” added Emery at his book launch.
“I trust that more than experience, because what worked for you before might not serve you now.”
However, for all of his cup successes, there is one significant failure that stands out on Emery’s CV – the historic 6-1 capitulation at Camp Nou that saw his PSG eliminated from the Champions League in 2017 despite arriving with a 4-0 first-leg lead.
“From that game, the only thing I’d change is the referee,” griped Emery in 2020, still hurt by his team’s remarkable capitulation. This season he has the chance to heal.
The players at his disposal are not as star-studded as those he coached at PSG but seem more determined to follow his plans to the letter. And that’s just what he needs.
He watched and analysed 17 Manchester United games before the Europa League final and will be doing the same before heading to Anfield on Wednesday.
Even just watching their last game, where Everton frustrated their rivals by sitting deep and playing to Anthony Gordon to get in behind Trent Alexander-Arnold – a role Danjuma could happily play – Emery will have heaped plenty of ammunition for his players to fire.
Note: This article is written by Rik Sharma and has been published at Goal