Europa League final: Alonso, the chosen one, against Gasperini, peerless journeyman

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Xabi Alonso enjoyed the unique distinction of having played for three of Europe’s four most successful football clubs. Liverpool (6), Real Madrid (14) and Bayern Munich (6) are members of the Fab Four who have won European football’s greatest prize – the European Cup/Champions League – at least six times. AC Milan (7) are the other.

Alonso won the Champions League with Liverpool (2005) and Real (2014), and added league titles in Spain and Germany to his trophy cabinet. He also won the FA Cup in England. All this, of course, was in addition to a World Cup winner’s medal (2010) and two European Championship triumphs (2008 and 2012) with Spain. It’s safe to say that few players have had such storied careers.

But even those legendary clubs that he played for never achieved a perfect season. Alonso the coach is now just 180 minutes away from it. Before he took charge at Bayer Leverkusen in October 2022, Bayern Munich had won the league 11 years in succession. Like the PSG-dominated Ligue 1 and sundry one-team competitions in Eastern Europe, German football was in danger of becoming a joke.

Alonso didn’t just disrupt Bayern’s dominance, he destroyed it. The season that Leverkusen just put together to win the Bundesliga for the first time was almost without peer. They won 28 of their 34 games, while scoring an incredible 89 goals along the way. In the German Cup, they will play Kaiserslautern in Sunday’s final, having found the net 23 times in five previous rounds. The Europa League campaign, which culminates tonight with a face-off against Atalanta in Dublin, has seen 31 goals across 12 games.

The upshot of those results is a 51-match unbeaten run that has no parallel in European football history. Ever since European competitions began in the mid-1950s, the longest streak was Benfica’s 48 between 1963 and 1965. That team, with the magnificent Eusebio at its heart, lost the European Cup final to Inter Milan.

This is Alonso’s first full-fledged coaching job, and what he has achieved has made him European football’s hottest property. Jose Mourinho, who coached him at Real between 2010 and 2013, was astonishingly prescient when he said in a 2019 interview that of all his former wards, Alonso had the best chance to succeed on the touchline.

It’s no secret that Liverpool wanted him to follow Jurgen Klopp. But the decision to stay on at the Bay Arena is a sensible one. Even if he loses a star or three this summer – Florian Wirtz is one of the most coveted players in world football – Alonso has time to rebuild and test himself against Europe’s best in the Champions League next season. And he can do so without any of the pressure that he would face on a daily basis at Anfield or the Santiago Bernabeu, where they have already decided that he’s the first choice to eventually succeed Carlo Ancelotti.


Up against Alonso is the Irish capital is Gian Piero Gasperini. His time at an elite club, Internazionale, lasted just five games in 2011, but what he has achieved at Atalanta since taking charge in 2016 defies belief. The Bergamo side were Italian football’s yo-yo club, constantly switching between Serie A and Serie B. Gasperini took them to three straight third-place finishes between 2018 and 2021, on a fraction of the budget enjoyed by the Milan giants and Juventus.

Their Europa League adventure has already seen a stunning 3-0 destruction of Liverpool at Anfield, Gasperini’s second win at one of the most intimidating venues in football. If any coach deserves a major honour, it’s this journeyman who once played youth football with the great Paolo Rossi. But getting past Alonso and the relentless Leverkusen machine will take some doing.

What the Germans have achieved also partially exorcises the ghosts of 2001-02, when Klaus Toppmoller’s side went from potential treble to zero in the space of just over a fortnight. Five points ahead of Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga with just three games to play, ‘Neverkusen’ managed to lose the title by a point. Schalke thumped them 4-1 in the German Cup final, and Zinedine Zidane magical bicycle kick was the difference in a 2-1 defeat to Real in the Champions League final. By the next February, Toppmoller had been dismissed, and the team itself became a byword for mental frailty.

What Alonso has done is turn that narrative on its head. Time after time this season, Leverkusen, with the snarling Granit Xhaka at the heart of the midfield, have conjured up wins and draws with late, late goals. Eventually, it was Bayern and Thomas Tuchel that cracked. On Wednesday night, Alonso, who took over when the club was in danger of relegation, can take the second step towards immortality.

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