On this day 22 years ago, the Norwegian wrote himself into club folklore when turning home at the death as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side fought back to win the Champions League and complete the treble.
But May 26, 2021 did not provide another triumphant chapter in United’s success-laden story, with the match ending 1-1 and going to a penalty shootout after Edinson Cavani cancelled out Gerard Moreno’s opener.
All outfield players scored their spot-kicks, as did Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli before saving De Gea’s penalty to win the shootout 11-10 and secure the first major trophy in their history.
It was a heartbreaking end to a promising season for United, who finished as Premier League runners-up and showed clear signs of progress.
But defending set-pieces has been a problem throughout and Moreno opened the scoring when all too easily meeting Dani Parejo’s terrific free-kick.
Cavani levelled early in the second half after Marcus Rashford’s volley fell kindly for him from close range and Villarreal clung on for extra-time, which Unai Emery’s men edged before triumphing on penalties.
Bruno Fernandes captained United in the Europa League final as Harry Maguire was named among the substitutes.
England centre-back Maguire looked set to miss out on the squad after sitting out training on Tuesday with ankle ligament damage but was named on the bench in Gdansk, where Victor Lindelof started alongside Eric Bailly.
De Gea got the nod over Dean Henderson in goal, while Solskjaer started Paul Pogba started alongside Scott McTominay in midfield as Fred had to make do with a spot on the bench.
Carlos Bacca partnered Moreno in attack, while former Watford midfielder Etienne Capoue and Tottenham loanee Juan Foyth were also named in the starting line-up.
Villarreal and United played out a cagey, goalless opening 25 minutes in Gdansk.
Solskjaer’s men started strongly and McTominay dragged wide, with Luke Shaw seeing a cross fly just out of reach of his team-mates.
Marcus Rashford tried a long-range effort and Pau Torres headed over from Bacca’s outrageous rabona cross at the other end.
Villarreal opened the scoring in the 29th minute as United’s soft underbelly came back to haunt them once again.
Cavani gave away a free-kick that Dani Parejo swung in from the left, with Moreno all too easily getting behind Lindelof to direct home.
Solskjaer was fuming on the touchline as set pieces again cost United, whose response was meek as they lacked attacking spark and dynamism.
Rashford saw a dangerous cross cut out after some superb skill in stoppage time, before Greenwood darted down the right to drill in a cross that Raul Albiol almost turned into his own goal.
United made it 1-1 in the 55th minute, when Rashford volleyed a headed Villarreal clearance from Shaw’s corner back towards goal. The strike ricocheted off Alfonso Pedraza and McTominay, wrongfooting goalkeeper Rulli as Cavani reacted to turn home from six yards.
United enjoyed a strong spell and Rashford spurned a good chance to put them ahead on 70 minutes when he shot wide from close range after being set up by Fernandes.
Villarreal: Rulli, Foyth (Mario 88), Albiol, Torres, Pedraza (Moreno 88), Pino (Alcacer 77), Capoue (Raba 120), Parejo, Trigueros (Moi Gomez 77), Gerard, Bacca (Coquelin 60). Unused substitutes: Sergio Asenjo, Funes Mori, Estupinan, Pena, Jaume, Nino.
Man Utd: de Gea, Wan Bissaka (Mata 120), Bailly (Tuanzebe 116), Lindelof, Shaw, McTominay (Alex Telles 120), Pogba (James 115), Greenwood (Fred 100), Bruno Fernandes, Rashford, Cavani. Unused substitutes: Maguire, Grant, Diallo, Henderson, Matic, Williams, van de Beek.
Referee: C Turpin (Bourgogne).