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Unai Emery exclusive: three-time Europa League winner relishing Man United challenge

“There is no complex,” Unai Emery tells ESPN.

Villarreal is a town of 50,577 people. Manchester United‘s stadium alone holds 74,140 people. Villarreal are playing in their first ever cup final; Manchester United have won 42 major trophies. Villarreal have never been this far in Europe before, breaking down barriers when they got through the semifinal phase at which they had fallen four times. Manchester United have actually won all three European competitions: the Europa League, the old Cup Winners Cup, and the European Cup. Three times.

But Villarreal’s manager does not fear Wednesday’s final in Gdansk, Poland, and there is no feeling of inferiority. Nor, though, is there any pretence of equality. Instead, there is ambition. A recognition of the team standing before them, the enormity of the club they face, is a good thing: far from provoking fear or a complex, it’s a symbol of how far Villarreal have come.

It is also, Emery says, a symbol of the competition itself and how far it is come — a competition he has done much to defend and project, and not just by winning it, almost as if it was his mission. It is one he returns to repeatedly. Listening to him in conversation with Fernando Palomo for his podcast, “Nos Ponemos las Pilas,” you genuinely believe Emery would rather play United than someone smaller and easier to beat. Because this is not just about the club; it is about the competition, and one that he is associated with perhaps more than anyone anywhere in the world. It feels right, somehow, that he should be in the final again.

For all that Emery was criticised, blamed and even laughed at in London, this is not some dramatic recovery from what happened when he was managing Arsenal. Nor is it him driven by vindication or a point to prove. He didn’t frame the semifinal victory over his former club in those terms even when he would have been entitled to do so. Instead, this is just him getting on with the work; Emery doing what Emery does.

Emery is a five-time finalist (as of 9 p.m. Wednesday) and a three-time Europa League champion; he is also a three-time champion of the Europa League, winning it with Sevilla in three straight seasons. To listen to him talk is to hear how this competition contributed to making him, and to hear how he has contributed to making it, how he continues to. It has become his place, and that seems to bring a desire to protect and promote it. To fall for its charms. To introduce others to it. The fact that Manchester United await on Wednesday demonstrates that this is a place the big clubs embrace now, he says. In part, to feel what he felt.

It is what Villarreal wanted to feel too: they have spent 14 of the past 20 years in Europe, have finished second in La Liga, and are fully established as one of the strongest, most stable sides in Spain. But they still haven’t won anything in their history and, at long last, they wanted to. And so, they turned to Emery.

Villarreal is the third club Emery leads into the Europa League final, but the connection is something he admits he learned, and experienced, at Sevilla, who’d won it twice before he arrived at the Sanchez Pizjuan. He recalls them telling him that Champions League qualification, as he had achieved at Valencia, was fine and all, but that nothing matches the feeling of actually winning something and the Europa League offers that.

Soon, he discovered that they were right, winning the competition in 2014. He enjoyed it so much, he did it again in 2015. And in 2016. Three years after that he returned to the final with Arsenal, only to be beaten by Chelsea. Now here he is again, in search of that feeling. One he wants to share.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

ESPN: So, what is it about you and the Europa League?

Emery: This is a very nice competition that has grown a lot, always in the shadow of the Champions League, as a second competition, one that, thanks to teams like Valencia, Sevilla, Arsenal and Villarreal this season, I have been able to enjoy. There have been three titles with Sevilla, a final with Arsenal and this one now with Villarreal. All that experience that I have gathered playing in it, playing in those finals, I have tried to transmit and communicate here at Villarreal.

This is a club with a credibility, consistency. At the institutional level, it is a very solid project: very stable, very reliable. In sporting terms, they had played four semifinals — one in the Champions League vs. Arsenal, and then in the Europa League vs. Valencia, Porto and Liverpool — but they had failed to make that final leap. They had always been stopped at the semifinal. This year, we had the challenge of taking that extra step, and we have managed to do that.

The satisfaction for me is having been able to contribute with my work and my experience, but above all, I’m grateful to be at a club that is ambitious, that has good players, and has been able to compete in a competition that in recent years has seen teams like Arsenal, Man United and Liverpool compete. Those are clubs that lived off the Champions League and didn’t always value this second competition so much. But now you see this final: we play Manchester United. When I was at Arsenal, we played Chelsea. That’s not so different to the Champions League now. We’re fortunate to be here, and to be able to represent Spanish football in that final.

What have you learned from Villarreal?

I learn daily with young, hungry players, potentially players of a high level. Some of them are already established, like Pau [Torres] who is with the [Spain] national team. That gives me the enthusiasm to keep working, to push them.

What do I learn? To live with them daily, to try to make them better players and people, to seek connections on a footballing and an emotional level, to find a way — in good and bad moments. To find balance. That’s how I see my role as a coach: to contribute, to learn, to improve.

Before the semifinal, you told the players to do it for Fernando Roig, the Villarreal president…

That’s born of appreciation and the admiration I always had for Villarreal when I was at Almeria, Valencia, Sevilla, PSG or Arsenal. It’s a team from a small town where they have ambition and put the resources in place to fulfill that ambition. You can talk about the players they have had: Martin Palermo, Juan Roman Riquelme, Marcos Senna, Bruno Soriano… or now, with Raul Albiol, Pau… It’s an established, consolidated project, consistent and ambitious. And that comes from Roig, who has been here 23 years, from Llaneza, who was his managing director, and from Roig’s son, Ferando Roig Negueroles, who is the CEO.

The project is theirs. I contribute what I can, but the idea is theirs, and that’s what I try to communicate to the players. We want to be recognisable [as Villarreal] while breaking down barriers. And we don’t want to stop here.

You’re playing Manchester United, a true giant. How do you break that complex of inferiority?

There is no complex. Villarreal are recognised now, consolidated. Those complexes get left along the way. It’s not a complex; if it’s anything, it’s a challenge to take one step further. Semifinal of the Champions League with Manuel Pellegrini in 2006. Semifinal against Valencia in the old UEFA cup. Semifinal against Porto, who were managed by Andres Villas-Boas. Semifinal against Liverpool, with Jurgen Klopp. Liverpool were Champions League winners a few years later, but they came here.

I was lucky enough to play Liverpool in the final with Sevilla and beat them [in 2015]. That’s [the size of] clubs Villarreal have competed with. There’s a path that is established now, a credibility that this club has earned. So, there’s no complex. We are proud of this badge, of the Pamesa on our shirt — that’s the president’s company — and of the fact that our players are recognised internationally. What I want to bring is my knowledge and experience.

You face Arsenal or Manchester United and this team has answers, it can perform. It can take them on in the final. And that’s our objective.

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Shaka Hislop says Manchester United will only have themselves to blame if they don’t win the Europa League.

What does the name “Manchester United” mean to you?

In the meeting in Nyon, Switzerland, where the elite coaches meet, I once launched a defence of the Europa League because it was a competition that has brought happiness to many teams who couldn’t win the Champions League.

Basically, eight teams can win the Champions League, although there’s an exception every so often. The rest of us compete happily in the Europa League and it makes our fans happy to compete for a title, share those moments, that enthusiasm. Alex Ferguson, who was playing in the Champions League with Manchester United every year, said “but Unai, you’ll want to win the Champions League, right?” And I said: “yes, if I have the chance to. But if I can’t, I want to go into the Europa League and strengthen it.”

It’s a competition that I feel comfortable and grateful to be in it. And since then, paradoxically, United have spent a few years in the Europa League and they want to win it. That’s happening more; that’s what makes this competition great. We want to compete for it and we feel proud to do that.

How do you define “The Emery Way?” Is it defined not so much by the manager as by each match?

I wrote a book some time ago called Winning Mentality. I wrote it when I hadn’t won a trophy and some people said ‘it’s bold of him to write a book with that title when he hasn’t won anything,’ but I thought winning isn’t just the fact of having a trophy at the end. No, it’s that you prepare the mentality to win, that you compete, that you work towards a win. You’re not always going to win. The fact that you want to win always is a mentality.

Now, I think there’s another chapter, which is a competitive mentality: adapt to what you have, and compete. You’re not always going to find the same conditions. I have been at lots of clubs and seen many models, different idiosyncrasies and structures, and different ways of identifying with your fans through the way you play. That competitive mentality is knowing and adapting to your club, to your team, to your opponents and what they impose upon you. It’s learning to overcome that. That’s part of my thinking as a coach.

I want my teams to be alive and enthusiastic. I want a team that wants to get the ball back as near as possible to the opposition’s goal, that’s well-positioned, that has the ball because when we have the ball, I feel more secure. A team that has the mechanisms necessary to attack the opposition, that plays with high intensity, that can connect with the fans: a team that plays in a way that awakens emotions in them, that makes them feel like things are happening.

Luck plays a part. You mentioned after the semifinal that you were reading a book on luck.

We can go deep on that question: what is luck? I don’t believe in luck. I read the Libro de la Suerte [“The Book of Luck,” by Sergio Lairla and Ana Lartitegui], which is a very simple book that talks about creating circumstances, and the conditions needed, for opportunities to appear and then making the most of them. And you make opportunities with work. So “good luck” is something that I relate to work.

I don’t think we were lucky in the semifinal: in the first 90 minutes [vs. Arsenal] we dominated and scored, and the lead could have been bigger. Then we conceded a penalty that wasn’t. In the second game, we administered that lead. We didn’t get through because of luck.

When people talk about luck, they tend to mean ‘that the ball hit the post.’ Well, that’s what posts are for. That’s part of the game. People mention penalties, but that’s not luck either: there’s work there, too. Or a man goes through, one on one, and hits the post. Is that luck? No, it’s a circumstance of the game. Luck can be the toss of a coin. In football, luck is minimal.

What are you reading now?

I alternate. I read books on leadership, emotional intelligence, management, daily rules for optimism in work, how to confront difficulties. They help me a lot, and I use them to communicate [ideas] to the team.

What do you dream of?

I’m not much of a dreamer; I’m more about moments and realities. In the semifinal, we had the challenge of a taking that extra step, breaking the barrier. And we talked about how we had to avoid that “What if?” What if I don’t make the final? What if I lose? You have to take that “What if?” away and not let it be part of your thinking. Play, flow, enjoy working, training, the experience together. Manage those moments before a big occasion, be natural. We overcame that and now we have the final.

There’s now a new “What If” — What if we win? That can be positive and useful, but even then, I prefer not to [frame it] like that. What if? No. Live the moment, enjoy the work, the preparation, the experience, being together. Act, be ready, work, flow. Be in the moment. It will come.

I don’t dream, I work, I prepare. I prepare for something good, as I’m optimistic. Win or lose? That’s a reality, it can be either. I visualise what we can do, how we can do things, how we can stop opponents, how we find those connections, how we get the best out of the players.

I don’t dream, I act.

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