Ahead of tonight’s reunion with David De Gea, Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli only has one regret about his penalty save which settled the Europa League final against Manchester United: he wishes it had been against an outfield player.
First, Rulli scored past De Gea to put Villarreal 11-10 up in that extraordinary sudden-death shoot-out in Gdansk last May. Then he saved his opposite number’s kick to win the final.
It must be a goalkeeper’s union thing but he really doesn’t like that particular detail of the story.
Geromino Rulli is the Villarreal keeper looking for another Manchester United scalp tonight
Rulli (right) saved David de Gea’s shootout penalty when Villarreal won the Europa League final
‘I would have preferred for the shoot-out to end before, and for me to stop any of the kicks instead of the keeper’s,’ he says.
‘We do the same job and it’s a thankless one sometimes. I know how a goalkeeper suffers so I would have preferred to stop a kick from an outfield player.’
Of his own successful penalty he recalls not even realising it was his turn: ‘I remember the previous penalty from [Victor] Lindelof and I was upset because I’d got a touch to it without stopping it.
‘I had lost count, with so many penalties taken, and when I was walking away from the goal the referee said to me: ‘Keeper, it’s your turn to take’.
Rulli told Sportsmail that he wishes he saved the crucial kick from an outfield player instead
Rulli (left) had to step up and score a penalty before becoming the shootout saver
‘At first I did a double take: Me? Are you sure no one has been missed out? Then from the moment I took the ball all I was thinking about was hitting the back of the net.
‘I’d never practiced taking a penalty myself beyond messing around in training with a team-mate.
‘It was a case of hit it hard and try to get it high. Hard and high, exactly what us goalkeepers don’t like. I hit it with all that I had left, my heart and soul. And luckily it went in.’
He is still surprised at how calm he was ahead of the kick. ‘I can’t believe how I wasn’t really conscious of the responsibility I had because all of my teammates had scored. They had done their job and I had not been able to save a single kick.
Rulli’s heroics helped Villarreal win their first ever major honour in the Spanish club’s history
‘I never thought about the fact that I was playing in a final and against Manchester United and with De Gea up against me, I just thought don’t screw it up, put it in.’
After scoring he still had to finish the job and save from De Gea. ‘When it comes to David’s kick, I had no idea where he was going to put it but the way he approached the ball and the last step of his run-up made me think that it was impossible for him to hit it really hard,’ Rulli says, describing the ‘milliseconds’ that changed his club’s history giving them their first ever trophy and leaving Ole Gunnar Solskjaer still without his as Manchester United manager.
To hear the 29-year-old retell the events of the night – gloves thrown to the crowd at the end, the highly-charged Unai Emery telling his team to face the final like a band of brothers – is to be reminded of what it meant to the club from the town of 50,000 inhabitants who had never played European football before 2003.
The Europa League triumph earned the Yellow Submarine a spot in the Champions League
It put them in the Champions League for one thing and the group draw has put them in with a United side now boosted by the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo who Rulli knows all about from previous La Liga meetings between Real Sociedad and Real Madrid.
‘I think he scored a hat-trick against me,’ he says. ‘And there was another game when he took two penalties against me scoring one and missing the other.
‘It is going to be the first Champions League game back at Old Trafford for him and they have signed [Raphael] Varane and [Jadon] Sancho too.
‘But we will play our game and we feel that we can take on anyone; we showed that against Chelsea in the Super Cup final.’
Rulli is not concerned about coming up against Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo (right)
Rulli (right) knows Ronaldo (top) well from his time during Real Sociedad and Real Madrid
As well as meaning a lot to Villarreal the Europa League win also changed things for Rulli, brought to Europe from Argentine club Estudiantes by an investment group in 2014, partially owned by Manchester City who he never played for, and moving to Real Sociedad where his career began to stall after a drop in form.
After one error that cost his team points he admitted that his wife Rocio Esposito ‘cried all night’ as the criticism of him began to affect his loved ones. And he sought help from people who he says ‘had nothing to do with the world of football,’ to help him deal with things mentally.
It’s fitting that his wife should be in Gdansk to witness her husband enjoy his finest hour. In a stadium with a significantly restricted attendance because of Covid restrictions, could he even hear her shouts?
Rulli is used to playing against top opposition such as Real Madrid and Karim Benzema (right)
‘She couldn’t even bear to look,’ Rulli laughs. ‘She had been teasing me for years: when am I going to save a penalty and when am I going to score a goal? Now she can have no complaints!’
Pandemic restrictions had meant his family in Argentina could not travel to Poland for the game but he was not alone. And that was even more true after his save from De Gea when he was mobbed by team-mates and club staff.
‘I turn around and there are about 60 of them charging towards me to hug me,’ he says. And back in goalkeepers’ union-mode he adds: ‘That’s one good thing about our position. When your team-mates depend solely on you, the satisfaction when you deliver is huge.’
Rulli is the man Ronaldo and Co need to get past if they want their first European points