Europa League final: Leverkusen 2 games into the season undefeated

Bayer Leverkusen is two games away from European football immortality.

Germany’s new champions have two cup finals in four days, starting on Wednesday in the Europa League against Atalanta, to complete an unbeaten season in domestic and continental competitions that was previously unthinkable.

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On Saturday, Leverkusen will be the heavy favorite to win the DFB Pokal final against a Kaiserslautern team that finished 13th in the second division, not far from falling into the relegation playoffs.

So the biggest challenge that remains for coach Xabi Alonso’s team is game number 52 of 53, in Dublin against an Atalanta that is finishing the season strong.

It seems appropriate because the Europa League has been a constant drama for Leverkusen.

Three times in six games in the knockout rounds, the team was 2-0 down in the second half and was still behind going into injury time: in both round of 16 games against Qarabag and in the second leg of the semifinals against Roma.

“Our self-confidence continues to drive us,” Alonso said Tuesday. “I think that belief is crucial to our way of thinking.”

In another European match that saved their streak, against West Ham in the quarterfinals, Leverkusen was ready to advance on aggregate, but needed a goal in the 89th minute from winger Jeremie Frimpong to tie 1-1 and remain unbeaten.

“We don’t want to wait until the last seconds of the game,” said Patrick Schick, whose three stoppage-time goals against Qarabag in March were key to advancing 5-4 on aggregate. “We would like to make it clear earlier.”

Atalanta defender Berat Djimsiti acknowledged on Tuesday that it was “definitely an additional motivation” to try to be the team that beat Leverkusen. “They have accomplished extraordinary things this season.”

There have been other star teams in European football that added the elite Champions League to their domestic league title, unlike Leverkusen who play in the second division Europa League.

Still, Manchester United in 1999, Inter Milan in 2010, Barcelona in 2011 and Manchester City last year also lost some games and were rich clubs whose success could have been expected. Each began their season with established, star-studded teams led by managers (Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola) who had already won multiple domestic and European trophies.

This is Alonso’s first full season as a coach at the highest level. His team was in relegation trouble last season. There were no superstar transfer signings during the offseason.

“I’m really enjoying it,” Alonso, 42, said. “The energy in the locker room is really good and the mentality we’ve shown all year has been fantastic.”

Alonso twice won the Champions League as a classy midfielder, with Liverpool and then Real Madrid, who will play Borussia Dortmund for this season’s Champions League title. That final on June 1 at Wembley Stadium is between two teams involved in the failed escape from the Super League in 2021: Madrid advances and Dortmund rejects the invitation.

Bayer Leverkusen and Atalanta were far from being invited to the breakaway three years ago and today represent football projects that have earned the respect of neutral fans across Europe.

Two well-run clubs, reliant on savvy transfer deals, albeit backed respectively by pharmaceutical giant Bayer and Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, had combined total revenues last year that amounted to roughly the same $500 million. than Manchester City. Only the players’ salary bill.

However, both Leverkusen and Atalanta, under coach Gian Piero Gasperini since 2016, play eye-pleasing football in attack and defence.

“They play one-on-one all over the field,” Schick said of Atalanta. “Wherever you move, you have a defender behind you so they don’t give you any room to breathe.”

Atalanta have been a refreshing force under Gasperini and already have a place in the Champions League next season. In any normal year, first-time European title winners would be popular.

However, what Leverkusen has done is not normal and a legend could be a few days away from being created.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.