Atalanta flip script to finish Leverkusen’s unbeaten season

Before his side set out to try and make even more history, Xabi Alonso compared football to “a movie.” But the final of the Europa League proved a scene he’d have preferred to leave on the cutting room floor, as Ademola Lookman’s hat trick ensured he took top billing and Italian side Atalanta walked the red carpet in Dublin, ending Bayer Leverkusen’s unbeaten season in the process.

“It’s not about the unbeaten run, that didn’t matter, it’s about this game,” said Leverkusen’s midfielder Granit Xhaka. “We lost a game, unfortunately. That’s football. We knew it’d be a tough game, compliments to Atalanta.”

Lookman, who had a spell in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig, opened the scoring after 12 minutes before further punishing an uncharacteristically sloppy Leverkusen with two excellent strikes in the 26th and 75th minutes.

No Leverkusen late show, as Lookman shines

The Nigerian international, born and raised in London, has bounced around clubs without ever quite fulfilling his potential. He is representative of a team made up of smart transfers, homegrown players and those who have been guided back onto the right path by coach Gian Pierro Gasperini.

“One of the best nights of my life,” Lookman told TNT Sports immediately after the game. “Amazing performance from the team. We did it. I don’t have many words to say, but fantastic … We have to celebrate. We made history tonight.”

Given the nature of Leverkusen’s season — they have scored 18 stoppage-time goals and 33 goals after the 80th minute — even the third of Lookman’s goals might not have felt like the clincher on any other night. But even a belief forged in one of football’s greatest seasons wilted in the force of a ferocious, focused and emphatic display from the Italian side.

“It is extremely bitter,” Leverkusen midfielder Robert Andrich told German broadcaster RTL. “Atalanta did what they always do, press all over the pitch, and they won the decisive duels.”

“We have to be honest: it was deserved,” the German international continued. “It wasn’t enough today. I think we had phases in the game where we were better, but we didn’t create any real scoring opportunities. You deserve to lose if you concede three goals and don’t score any.”

Alonso suffers first big setback

As Alonso applauded the traveling fans, who kept singing, his players ambled around the Dublin pitch, having almost forgotten the sensation of defeat.

“We were not planning to have a bad day today, but for sure, we had one,” Alonso told TNT. “It was not meant to be. It hurts because we wanted to lift the trophy, but you can’t have everything.”

The Leverkusen coach has enjoyed a meteoric rise since taking charge of the Bundesliga outfit in his first senior job in 2022. Questions will be asked of his decision to leave Lookman’s Nigerian teammate Victor Boniface on the bench, but to reach this point without defeat and to secure a first Bundesliga title is an enormous over-achievement.

Domestic double still on

Alonso’s decision to stay put and spurn Bayern Munich and Liverpool means he will take his side to the Champions League next term. As gracious and eloquent as ever, the 42-year-old explained why he was comfortable with that decision.

“We have a very good connection,” he said. “[There are] many players I went to look for, and they came to the project, so it was too early [to go]. I’m happy to be here, and I will learn from today. It’s an experience that means we will keep improving.”

As much as it stings, this loss will certainly not define Alonso’s side. And with the German Cup final to come, against second division Kaiserslautern on Saturday in Berlin, they could, and probably should, end a memorable campaign on a high.

“At the moment, of course, the disappointment is much greater than the anticipation of Berlin,” added Andrich.

After 51 games and 361 days, stretching back to a 3-0 defeat against VfL Bochum on the final day of last season, Leverkusen’s incredible run came to an end.

It didn’t turn out to be an invincible season for Leverkusen, but then, unlike Hollywood movies, football doesn’t always follow the script.

Edited by: John Silk