Manchester United were stunned by underdogs Villarreal in the Europa League final in Gdansk, with the former Arsenal midfielder playing a key role in their downfall
“This is the one, this is the one David de Gea is going to save,” Robbie Savage said as Francis Coquelin placed the ball down on the penalty spot.
With the shootout locked at seven apiece after 14 perfect penalties, the Villarreal midfielder had a chance to strike his side back in front.
But scarcely before the Welshman had uttered his prediction, Coquelin had effortlessly stroked the ball into the top corner.
Of the 22 penalties taken in the Europa League final, the former Arsenal man’s was arguably the best.
Following Manchester United’s defeat in Gdansk, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was asked whether he considered bringing Dean Henderson on due to De Gea’s poor spot-kick saving record.
In truth, Solskjaer could have put De Gea, Henderson, Lee Grant and goalkeeping coach Richard Hartiss in between the sticks and penalty No.15 would have still found the back of the net.
Savage was quickly silenced in the commentary box, but he wasn’t the only person inside the Stadion Miejski that may have been forced into a change of tune.
Sir Alex Ferguson was part of the United travelling party, invited by Solskjaer in an ambassadorial role.
He may unfortunately have served a different purpose however, with Coquelin handed a perfect chance to impress in front of one of his harshest critics.
In 2011, aged just 20, the Frenchman was handed his Premier league debut by Arsene Wenger in the most difficult of circumstances.
Hastily promoted into the first-team, the midfielder was thrown into the deep end against Fergie’s United at Old Trafford.
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The Gunners would lose 8-2 in one of the most infamous results in Premier League history.
In his autobiography, the legendary United boss made only one reference to that memorable afternoon, issuing a scathing review of the debutant.
“Arsenal played a young boy in midfield; Francis Coquelin,” wrote Ferguson. “He was completely out of his depth. I had hardly heard of him and he barely played again.”
That of course isn’t correct, given he went on to make 160 appearances in all competitions for the Gunners.
But years later, reflecting on that rollerocaster week, Coquelin admiited: “In England, one day you can be up and the next you can be really low.”
That chastening afternoon looked as if it could be the defining moment of his Arsenal career, subsequently loaned to Freiburg and Charlton.
Of course, following that spell with the Addicks, Coquelin was finally handed a chance by “father figure” Wenger.
And he rarely looked back, becoming a regular at the Emirates before ultimately joining Valencia in 2017.
Last summer, with Los Che in the midst of continued mismanagement and another overhaul, he was taken to Villarreal – along with Dani Parejo – in two cut-price deals, to team up with Unai Emery.
He has since become an integral part of the Yellow Submarine setup.
His importance to Emery’s team was clear in Poland, stepping in to shackle and frustrate the likes of Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes as Villarreal frustrated and ultimately defeated the pre-match favourites.
“The tournament has been a fairy tale and beating them in the final is incredible,” an emotional Coquelin said shortly after the full-time whistle.
Almost a decade on from that humbling display in front of Ferguson, Coquelin was able to enjoy the highest of highs, once more proving people wrong along the way.