Atalanta show Bayer Leverkusen that nobody’s perfect

DUBLIN, Ireland — It was Michael Jordan who once said that he “never lost a game, I just ran out of time,” but as much as Xabi Alonso and his Bayer Leverkusen players might want the same to be true of their failure to complete an unprecedented unbeaten treble, the reality is that they ran out of ideas long before the clock and Atalanta beat them in the UEFA Europa League final.

Leverkusen had become the team that just doesn’t lose under Alonso this season. Unbeaten champions of a 34-game Bundesliga season, DFB-Pokal finalists and also in the final of a European competition — not a single defeat, anywhere — they were attempting to become the first team since European club competitions begin in 1955-56 to sweep the board without losing a game.

Until they arrived in Dublin, attempting to seal the second leg of an unbeaten treble, they had played 51 games without defeat in all competitions, a timespan of 361 days stretching back to a 3-0 defeat against VfL Bochum on May 27, 2023. But that run came to a crashing end with another 3-0 loss against Gian Piero Gasperini’s under-estimated Atalanta. And the harsh truth for Leverkusen is that it wasn’t even close.

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From start to finish, Atalanta dominated. Alonso had spoken before the game of how Gasperini’s team like to drop off and play deeper, but if he was expecting the same approach in the Aviva Stadium, it was a huge miscalculation as Atalanta pressed incessantly in the final third of the pitch and forced Leverkusen into mistake after mistake and part two of Leverkusen’s treble never looked likely to happen.

History was made in Dublin, but it was Atalanta’s Ademola Lookman, rather than Leverkusen, who wrote his place in the record books by becoming the first player to score a hat trick in a Europa League/UEFA Cup final since Jupp Heynckes for Borussia Monchengladbach in 1975.

No player had scored a hat trick in any European final for an Italian club since AC Milan‘s Pierino Prati achieved it in a 4-1 win against Ajax in the 1968-69 European Cup/UEFA Champions League final. So Lookman, who left the pitch holding the match ball as well as his winners’ medal, deserves all the acclaim he will receive in the coming days.

Atalanta are an outstanding team, brilliantly coached by Gasperini. They have convincingly beaten Napoli and Roma in Italy and Sporting CP and Liverpool in Europe this season, have secured Champions League qualification for next season, and have now become the first, and only, team to beat inflict a defeat on Leverkusen this campaign.

“I think we wrote history, also for the way we won it,” Gasperini said. “It was just extraordinary. We defeated Liverpool, Sporting [Lisbon] who won the championship. When we faced Liverpool, they were first in the Premier League. And now the German champions. Incredible. The boys were extraordinary, a memorable performance.”

But while this was Atalanta’s night, nobody outside of their home city of Bergamo would truly have expected that to be the outcome. Leverkusen have been so incredibly effective this season. They went into this final having scored after the 90th minute on 17 different occasions and when they have faced defeat in recent weeks, they have repeatedly pulled themselves out of the fire.

Since March, they have salvaged draws with stoppage-time goals against Roma (97th minute), Stuttgart (96th), Borussia Dortmund (97) and Qarabag (92). They turned defeat into victory against Hoffenheim with goals in the 88th and 91st minute, while in the home leg of their Europa League tie against Qarabag, they fought back from 2-0 to win 3-2 with goals in the 72nd, 93rd and 98th minute.

So when they trailed 2-0 at half-time following Lookman’s goals in the 12th and 26th minutes — both were down to poor defending triggered by Atalanta’s high press — there was no sense of panic among the players or their supporters. After all, they had been in this situation plenty of times before and wriggled out of it.

But while there was no panic, there was also no urgency. Alonso’s players looked heavy-legged, lacking in belief. They barely created a chance, despite Florian Wirtz doing his best to spark his team into life. Just as Liverpool were made to look lethargic and one-dimensional by Atalanta in their 3-0 defeat at Anfield in the quarterfinal first leg, Leverkusen fell into the same trap and ended up looking very ordinary.

“It wasn’t lost in terms of attitude, it was a football thing,” Alonso said. “It happens, it’s football, today wasn’t meant to be. They were better.

“It’s our first defeat of the season so it will be a test as to how we deal with it because we have a big game on Saturday. Normally it [first defeat] happens earlier in the season, but when it happens in such a big game, it hurts. But we have to use this pain in a positive way — it’s football, the normality is not to lose the first game in the 52nd game.

“It’s exceptional what we have done. Today is painful, but it is deserved as well.”

Despite those feelings of pain being experienced by Leverkusen, this season has already been remarkable and they can still create history by achieving an unbeaten double by beating Kaiserslautern, who finished mid-table in the second-tier 2. Bundesliga, in the DFB-Pokal final in Berlin on Saturday.

Being invincible on a domestic front is still the stuff of impossible dreams, yet Leverkusen are 90 minutes from realising it. But they were also 90 minutes from glory against Atalanta and, unlike Michael Jordan, they lost before they ran out of time.