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Unbeaten season v 61-year trophy drought in Europa League final

By BBC
Football News GETTY IMAGESImage caption: Xabi Alonso led Bayer Leverkusen to the Bundesliga title in his first full season as a senior manager
WED, 22 MAY 2024 LISTEN
GETTY IMAGES Image caption: Xabi Alonso led Bayer Leverkusen to the Bundesliga title in his first full season as a senior manager

The stakes are high in Wednesday's Europa League final at Dublin's Aviva Stadium - even higher than usual.

For Bayer Leverkusen, this is the chance to wrap up part two of a treble - and take them to within 90 minutes of an unprecedented unbeaten season.

For Atalanta, it is the opportunity to lift major silverware for the first time since 1963.

Xabi Alonso's Leverkusen have created headlines around the world with their 51-game unbeaten run in all competitions which has taken them to a first Bundesliga title. This from a club which had only won the 1988 Uefa Cup and 1993 German Cup.

The Spaniard, in his first full season as a senior manager, said: "Our focus is preparing the game, not [as] a special game. We haven’t changed anything.

"We have played 51 games. The players have understanding. Now is the time to give our best.

"We have been preparing for this moment through the whole year. It’s not just today's job. I have a great team. The players are ready for sure. I have a good feeling it will not be different. We will respect Atalanta but we have confidence in our game."

The two finalists ended British hopes in the Europa League quarter-finals with Bayer Leverkusen knocking out West Ham and Atalanta stunning Liverpool.

Atalanta boss Gian Piero Gasperini, whose side are without captain Marten de Roon through injury, said: "I think we are in the best possible condition in a psychological and physical sense.

"Leverkusen are a complete team, extremely organised. They are versatile, they can defend and recover the ball well. The results they have achieved this season are not an accident.

"We have to respect them and try to adapt quickly to the opponents we are facing."

  • Alonso feels Ireland 'connection'

Like many Spanish teenagers, Alonso spent a summer in Ireland to learn English - specifically Kells in County Meath as a 14-year-old.

When asked if he could have imagined then where he would be now, he said: "At that moment it was not in the plans what I would be.

"I enjoyed my summer here. It’s always great to come back. I always feel that connection. In my Liverpool years the connection with Ireland is strong."

  • Why is Leverkusen's season so special?

Bayer Leverkusen are only two games from achieving something which has never been achieved before - an unbeaten season by a team in European competition.

They had never won a German title in their 119-year history until this year - and then they did it without losing a single game. That is something no team had ever done in the Bundesliga.

In fact they were known as Neverkusen - because they had been Bundesliga runners-up five times, lost three of their four German Cup finals and their only Champions League final. They managed to finish second in all three in 2001-02 with their Champions League final best remembered for Zinedine Zidane's stunning goal for Real Madrid.

But that all misery changed with the arrival of Real Sociedad B boss Alonso in October 2022 - when Leverkusen were second from bottom.

A classy midfielder for Real Sociedad, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Spain, the 42-year-old has revolutionised Leverkusen.

It is not just the quality of the football and the team, with free-scoring wing-backs, it is the remarkable never-say-die spirit.

In 2024 they have scored 10 equalisers or winners in the 90th minute or injury time, including two in one game.

Several of them have been in the 97th minute - including their Europa League semi-final second-leg draw with Roma.

They had a one-goal lead on aggregate but still threw men forward in a bid to salvage their unbeaten run.

Even if they beat Atalanta, there is one more obstacle after this - a German Cup final against second-tier Kaiserslautern on Saturday.

  • Why is Atalanta's season so special?

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IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES
Image caption: Gasperini has yet to win a major trophy in his 21-year managerial career

Atalanta are another team, like Bayer Leverkusen, with very little silverware and a transformative manager - albeit over a longer period of time.

The Bergamo club, in their 116th year of existence, have won just one trophy - the Coppa Italia in 1963.

A bit of a yo-yo club, in the 1990s and 2000s they bounced from Serie A to Serie B and back five times.

Gasperini has turned them into a force to be reckoned with since his arrival in 2016, with six of their 10 seasons in Europe coming in his eight-year reign.

This is their first European final, with Gasperini hoping to take the final step and leading them to glory.

The only downside to his time at Atalanta has been their record in finals, losing the Coppa Italia showpiece in 2019, 2021, and again last week to Juventus.

  • Any British interest?

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IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES
Image caption: Lookman has scored 27 goals for Atalanta since joining in 2022

Many had expected this game to be Jurgen Klopp's farewell as Liverpool manager - but Atalanta had other ideas when they met in the quarter-finals.

West Ham also fell at the same stage to Leverkusen.

And Brighton had already gone out to Roma in the last 16.

Each side have a London-born player in their ranks, and both represent Nigeria at international level.

Former Charlton, Everton, Fulham and Leicester winger Ademola Lookman is Atalanta's fourth-top scorer this season with 11 goals.

Leverkusen signed winger Nathan Tella from Southampton last summer - and often bring him on for Netherlands international Jeremie Frimpong, who grew up in England, at right wing-back He has netted six goals in all competitions.

  • Any more games to come?

Neither team will see their season end at the final whistle in Dublin.

Bayer Leverkusen, who will be hoping their dream of a treble remains alive, face Kaiserslautern in Saturday's German Cup final in Berlin's Olympic Stadium.

Alonso's side will be overwhelming favourites against a team who finished in the bottom half of the second tier this season.

Atalanta have two more Serie A games to play, against Torino and Fiorentina on the next two Sundays.

One point in either match will clinch a Champions League place next season.

The Fiorentina game will be played a week after the Italian season officially ends. It was due to take place in March but Fiorentina director Joe Barone collapsed in the team hotel before the game and died two days later.

With Fiorentina in next week's Europa Conference League final against Olympiakos, there was no other time to play the game.

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