‘Wiley’ Gasperini seeks to stop Alonso’s Leverkusen giant

DUBLIN – Bayer Leverkusen’s Xabi Alonso can cement his status as Europe’s managerial rising star in Wednesday’s Europa League final, but he will face a wily old fox in Atalanta’s Gian Piero Gasperini.

Alonso has rejected advances from former clubs Liverpool and Bayern Munich to remain in charge of Leverkusen, after leading the club to its first Bundesliga title in an unprecedented unbeaten season.

The German champions are unbeaten in 51 matches in all competitions and could claim a remarkable treble in two finals this week.

Leverkusen is the heavy favorite to beat second-division side Kaiserslautern in the German Cup final on Saturday.

But they face a much tougher task in Dublin against an Atalanta side who could also achieve their best season ever.

Atalanta, a provincial club from Bergamo, has traditionally lived in the shadow of nearby giants AC and Inter Milan.

However, he is enjoying a golden era with Gapserini and will play in the Champions League next season for the fourth time in five years.

However, he has consistently missed out on a trophy that marks an era of punching above his weight.

Atalanta have not lifted trophies in 61 years, having lost three Coppa Italia finals in the last six seasons, the most recent against Juventus less than a week ago.

“Is it the highest point of my career? Yes, in terms of achievements and prestige, absolutely,” Gasperini told UEFA.com upon reaching the club’s first European final.

“I don’t think that winning a cup is always part of the parameters by which success is judged. Everyone has their own goals. When you manage to surpass them by far, as happened at Atalanta, you still have to be very satisfied.

“If we can also add a cup, we will be even more satisfied.”

The 61-year-old coach said “the world of Atalanta has changed” since he took over eight years ago.

Back then, simply surviving in Serie A was a success. Continental football may be commonplace now, but they have enjoyed two of the best nights in their history as they eliminated European giants Liverpool and Marseille on the road to Dublin.

‘Golden letters’

Gasperini’s willingness to take risks with an attacking style of football and his ability to nurture young talent have earned the admiration of Alonso.

“He has a clear plan and has formed a team with a strong mentality and a lot of quality,” said the Spaniard. “They are a top-level team. We will have a chance if we show our best level.”

But it is Atalanta who must produce something notable in the Irish capital to stop the Leverkusen giants.

In contrast to Gasperini’s modest playing career in the youth ranks of Italian football, Alonso was a multiple World Cup and Champions League-winning midfielder, with vast experience in European finals to draw on from his days as a player.

However, in his career with Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, not even he has experienced a season like this.

“It would be historic,” the 42-year-old said of the possibility of finishing the season unbeaten in all competitions.

“It would be something written in gold letters, not only in the history of our club, but probably in all of European football. I hope we can do it.”

AFP