ROME – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reached a major final as Manchester United manager for the first time after a 3-2 defeat to AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico was enough to earn his side an 8-5 aggregate win in the Europa League semi-finals on Thursday (May 6).
United will face Villarreal in the final in Gdansk on May 26 after the Spaniards beat Arsenal 2-1 on aggregate.
Solskjaer had lost his last four semi-finals during his Old Trafford reign and despite Thursday’s defeat in Rome, the Norwegian’s side progressed comfortably thanks to last week’s commanding 6-2 first leg win.
“It’s a great achievement to get to the final. We didn’t win the game and that’s disappointing but we did the hard work in the first leg,” United captain Harry Maguire told BT Sport.
“We started the game a bit edgy. It was end-to-end like basketball and we gave them too many chances in second half. Now we’ve got to go to the final and win it.”
Edinson Cavani fired home a powerful finish after 39 minutes to open the scoring, but Roma found the net twice in the space of three second-half minutes through Edin Dzeko and Bryan Cristante to turn the game on its head.
United had goalkeeper David de Gea to thank for not going further behind as the Spaniard produced a string of superb saves.
Cavani headed the visitors level but 19-year-old debutant Nicola Zalewski’s shot took a big deflection off Alex Telles to beat De Gea as Roma secured the win on the night – but it was United who were left celebrating at the final whistle.
“We had some great European nights this season, with some big wins. It’s a pity for that second half in Manchester,” Roma midfielder Bryan Cristante told Uefa.
“Tonight we still had a few goals to score, but we exit the competition with our heads held high.”
Solskjaer’s team had tripped up in the semi-finals of two League Cups, the FA Cup and the Europa League since he succeeded Jose Mourinho in December 2018, but another exit never looked likely in the Italian capital.
Earlier this week Mourinho, who led United to their last trophy by winning the Europa League in 2017, was surprisingly named as Roma’s new coach from next season.
Hence the hosts started like a team with a point to prove.
De Gea superbly denied Gianluca Mancini from point-blank range, Henrikh Mkhitaryan headed into the side-netting and Dzeko drew another smart save from the Spanish goalkeeper.
But United grew into the game and came close when a clever Cavani lob clipped the top of the bar, before a powerful shot from the Uruguayan was saved by Antonio Mirante.
The visitors took the lead soon after, when a Fred pass sent Cavani racing through on goal to fire home.
Roma drew level in the 57th minute when Dzeko headed in from close range, and Paulo Fonseca’s side quickly completed the comeback when Cristante scored from the edge of the area three minutes later.
De Gea produced a superb double save on a Dzeko header and Pedro shot, before blocking a Mkhitaryan effort from point-blank range.
United survived the onslaught and drew level after 68 minutes when Cavani headed home a Bruno Fernandes cross, but Roma soon threatened again as Mkhitaryan’s shot thumped the foot of the post.
Substitute Zalewski made an immediate impact when his volley caused the Roma winner on the 83rd minute, but it went down as a Telles own goal after taking a heavy deflection.
Joy for Villareal’s Emery
Villarreal, meanwhile, held out for a 0-0 draw on a nerve-jangling night at Arsenal, as visiting manager Unai Emery returned to haunt the London club that sacked him in 2019.
The Spanish side, who had lost their four previous European semi-finals, one to Arsenal in the 2005-06 Champions League, protected their first-leg advantage with a disciplined display.
Arsenal, who now face the prospect of having no European football next season for the first time in 25 years, looked flat and never managed to exert any sustained pressure.
“We are devastated, really disappointed,” said Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta, who was dealt a blow in the warm-up when Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka was injured and had to be replaced by full back Kieran Tierney.
“But we congratulate Villarreal. I think we deserved to win the game but the details define these ties. The way we started in Villarreal wasn’t good enough.”
It was a desperately disappointing night for Arsenal that began with a large group of fans again demonstrating against the club’s American owner Stan Kroenke and ended with Spaniard Arteta facing increasing pressure over his future with Arsenal languishing in ninth spot in the Premier League.
His misery contrasted sharply with the mood of Emery who now takes the so-called Yellow Submarine to Poland on May 26 with the chance to win his fourth Europa League having done so three times in a golden period with Sevilla.
“I’m very proud, Arsenal are a very good team but I think we deserved it,” he said. “We made a very serious match, we all helped each other, we defended very well and sometimes with the possession we controlled the match.”
Looking ahead to the final he said: “It will be very difficult but we deserve to play this final and we will show our supporters our best performance again.”
Emery’s canny Villarreal side were worthy winners over the two legs although they rode their luck on a couple of occasions at The Emirates on Thursday when Arsenal skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang twice hit the post.
The Gabon striker thumped a volley against the upright in the 25th minute, although that was a rare Arsenal chance in a first half in which they showed an alarming lack of intensity considering the prize on offer.
Aubameyang then went even closer after the break when his header from Hector Bellerin’s cross hit the inside of the post and somehow did not spin across the line.
Emile Smith Rowe also lobbed the ball narrowly wide for the Gunners while Rob Holding saw a header flash past the post.
But the Spanish visitors were calm and composed in possession and might have put the tie to bed had Gerard Moreno made more of a glorious chance early in the second half instead of shooting straight at Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno.
Villarreal’s players celebrated loudly at the final whistle after surviving five minutes of stoppage time.
“Tonight I’m crying tears of emotion instead of disappointment,” said Villarreal youth product Pau Torres, now 24, who admitted crying when he watched the 2006 Champions League semi-final defeat by Arsenal.
“Villarreal have missed out on so many semi-final chances to reach the final but now, finally, we’ve done it.”