Xabi Alonso overshadowed by unlikely hero as unbeaten season goes down in flames

Atalanta 3-0 Bayer Leverkusen: Lookman’s hat-trick ensured the Serie A side lifted their first-ever European trophy

Miguel Delaney
at Aviva Stadium in Dublin
Thursday 23 May 2024 08:59 BST
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Ademola Lookman starred as Atalanta won the Europa League
Ademola Lookman starred as Atalanta won the Europa League (REUTERS)

Ademola Lookman’s lift-off finally brings Xabi Alonso down to earth. A player once hailed as one for the future prevented history being made for Bayer Leverkusen, who were finally defeated for the first time this season. Atalanta, instead, fully relished the moment as they won the Europa League for just the second trophy in their history, and the first in six decades. That was from Lookman becoming the first player since 1975 to score a hat-trick in a European final, for an emphatic 3-0 win.

It was a gloriously fitting reward for one of the most admirable football clubs on the continent over the last decade, and what European competition is meant to be about. That was what was supposed to be said about Alonso’s Leverkusen, and it was always going to take an incredible performance to overshadow the most sought-after manager in the world this season. That’s exactly what Lookman provided, scoring every goal in a victory where Atalanta never faltered. Lookman certainly didn’t. It was a hat-trick of the most divine and varied quality, to give the club’s legendary manager Gian Piero Gasperini the first trophy his adventurous career deserved.

The trophy-clinching third goal was maybe the pick, as Lookman drove the ball into the top corner of the net. It was also crucial because of the wider strands that have enriched the story of this Leverkusen season. They were chasing the first-ever unbeaten European season and a treble, with so many of the results from the 51-game run having been sensational comebacks which just seemed to propel their emotional momentum.

Atalanta’s 2-0 lead was actually the fourth time Leverkusen had fallen behind to that exact score in their seven Europa League knockout games. They always found a way back, until Lookman kept finding the net.

This was what was so virtuous about the Atalanta display, to complement the glory of victory. Gasperini’s team really ran the season’s revelations off the pitch. Lookman just ran them ragged.

Ademola Lookman scored a hat-trick as Atalanta’s positive display gave them control
Ademola Lookman scored a hat-trick as Atalanta’s positive display gave them control (Getty Images)

The entire team went further. From the very start, Gasperini got it right.

It might well mean this match in Dublin ends up as a very different origin story than had been expected. Alonso will still have big offers, of course. So now will Lookman. The Wandsworth-born Nigerian international has his own history in the Premier League, at Everton. He now may have a bigger future.

There have rarely been final displays like this. No other team or player has been able to do this to Leverkusen this season, and their dominance could be seen from the start of the game.

As Alonso again changed his team, Atalanta initially seemed so much clearer about their approach. It meant there were times when they cut through Leverkusen with ease. Huge gaps were appearing, made worse by some glaring errors. Granit Xhaka was no longer looking like the imperious figure he has cut this season. Atalanta were instead just slicing through them, Gasperini’s man-to-man approach fostering this sudden release. So it was that former Chelsea wing-back Davide Zappacosta scorched through the channel between Leverkusen’s goal and the byline, before cutting back for Lookman. There was almost a laxness in the response of Alonso’s defenders, all watching as the ball just rolled across the face of goal.

Lookman was there to lift it into the net. Almost the entire Atalanta bench rose to their feet and ran onto the pitch.

Atalanta’s intense pressing nullified Granit Xhaka’s impact for Bayer Leverkusen
Atalanta’s intense pressing nullified Granit Xhaka’s impact for Bayer Leverkusen (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Leverkusen were behind again, and very quickly behind by more. The next goal was even worse for them, and much better from Lookman. An errant header made its way back towards the winger, who put the ball between Xhaka’s legs with an almost casual ease. Lookman then sized up the long shot and swerved it around Matej Kovar and into the far corner from distance.

The most striking element about all of this was not that Leverkusen were behind, since we’ve seen this situation so many times, it’s that they had done so little up to then. They were barely in the game at all.

Lookman’s second at least started to wake them, as Alex Grimaldo began to get into dangerous positions. He just wasn’t making them count.

One shot flew by the post. Another move saw him through and one on one with Juan Musso, only to placidly put the ball into the goalkeeper’s arms rather than lift it over him.

Alonso had to change something. The praise he tends to get is that he is up there with almost anyone in the game in terms of clearly seeing the wider picture of a match, and knowing what to change.

Gian Piero Gasperini celebrated winning his first ever trophy as a manager
Gian Piero Gasperini celebrated winning his first ever trophy as a manager (Reuters)

Victor Boniface was brought on for Josip Stanisic. That did add more vigour to Leverkusen’s attack. They began to get into the game. They also started to leave more space at the back for Lookman to exploit. He topped it all off with something exquisite.

It was the goal of the game, in one of the performances of the season, creating one of the club’s greatest-ever moments. This was the type of escalating praise supposed to be said about Leverkusen.

Atalanta, as they have so often done in their impressively humble way, changed the course of events. Lookman brought one of the greatest-ever runs to an end, by just accelerating himself.

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