Europa League final: The genius of Gasperini gets its just reward

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When he wrote his autobiography, The Clown Prince of Soccer, in 1956, Len Shackleton, the Sunderland legend, included a chapter titled: The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football. It was a blank page. Nearly seven decades later, little has changed – Todd Boehly playing Russian roulette with great managers at Chelsea being a prime example.

Few stories illustrate the rank stupidity of the money men more than the case of Gian Piero Gasperini though. After cutting his managerial teeth at Crotone and Genoa, Gasperini, who had played alongside Paolo Rossi in Juventus’s youth sides, was a somewhat left-field choice to take charge of mighty Internazionale in 2011. Inter had won the treble with Jose Mourinho in 2009-10, but an aging squad was in decline. It was obvious that a period of transition would require patience.

Gasperini was sacked after five games. Five. That he wasn’t the problem became evident in the years that followed, as Inter finished outside the top three in eight consecutive seasons. There was no greater poetic justice than Gasperini guiding unfancied Atalanta to third place in 2018-19, edging out Inter on goal difference.

Since Gasperini, now 66, took charge of Atalanta in 2016, they have been one of the teams that neutrals all across Europe love to watch. If Italian football in a previous era had a reputation for dour, defence-first tactics, Gasperini, Roberto de Zerbi at Sassuolo, and Maurizio Sarri at Napoli turned that stereotype on its head with teams that had swash and buckle.

But after eight seasons in the job, and heartbreaking Coppa Italia final losses to Lazio (2019) and Juventus (2021), Gasperini needed a trophy of some sort as vindication for his breath-of-fresh-air tactical approach. Few, however, expected it to come in this season’s Europa League, with giants like Liverpool, AC Milan and Benfica part of the last eight. In addition, there was Bayer Leverkusen, whom Xabi Alonso had coached to the kind of unbeaten streak that European football had never seen before.

Gasperini had another problem. Clubs like Atalanta simply don’t have the resources to hang on to their best players once the elite clubs come calling. Before the start of this season, they lost Rasmus Hojlund to Manchester United, having bought him just a year earlier. Many of the players who had first made Atalanta a team to be feared under Gasperini had also departed. Papu Gomez, the Argentine playmaker, fell out with his coach three years ago, while Josip Ilicic, Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata have all moved on.

When you don’t have access to unlimited funds, you have to be creative with your signings. Eyebrows were raised when they paid RB Leipzig €15 million for Ademola Lookman. Born and raised in South London, Lookman, of Nigerian ancestry, had come through Charlton Athletic’s youth system. But at the age of 24, Atalanta was his sixth club. The talent was beyond doubt, but there were questions aplenty about whether he had the temperament for the big stage.

Atalanta’s faith, however, was amply repaid when Lookman scored a thrilling hat-trick to win the Europa League final in Dublin. Leverkusen and Alonso, who played five years at Anfield under Rafael Benitez, should have been warned by the manner in which Atalanta had taken Liverpool apart (3-0) on their own patch, and from the early exchanges, they had no answers to the Italian side’s intensity.

Lookman escaped the attention of Exequiel Palacios to side-foot home the first and then cut in from the left, and gave his markers twisted blood before curling a delightful finish into the far corner. But even at 2-0, there was simply no let-up. There was a telling moment with just over an hour gone – Alonso sat on the bench pondering his next move, while Gasperini, in his trademark jeans and club hoodie, gesticulated wildly on the touchline.

Teun Koopmeiners, the Dutch midfielder coveted by the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea, controlled the midfield with Ederson, and Alonso eventually withdrew both Florian Wirtz and Jeremie Frimpong, two of his attacking trump cards, before the final whistle.

There was still time for Lookman to latch on to a through ball and, from a narrow angle, unleash a left-footed strike that had the impact of a Joe Frazier upper-cut. It marked the first hat-trick in the final of the competition since Jupp Heynckes had smashed in three for Borussia Monchengladbach against FC Twente in the second leg of the 1975 final.

We know how this story ends. Alonso will go on to stockpile trophies with some of Europe’s greatest clubs over the next couple of decades. Atalanta will lose more players this summer. But, for now, none of that matters. Gasperini has the trophy his genius deserves, and the football world is a better place for it.

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