Dublin Europa League final defies all prematch expectations

Maybe it’s good for football that magnificent Atalanta denied Leverkusen a perfect season

It’s over. Bayer Leverkusen’s dream of the first-ever unbeaten season since the advent of European football in the 1950s died under a dim Dublin sky, as Atalanta’s Ademola Lookman scored a stunning hat-trick to shatter the German champions.

Irish football fans had packed out the Dublin Arena together with 12,000 Germans and about the same number of Italians to get a first-hand look at this miraculously unbeaten Leverkusen, who had emerged as a wonder of the football world after 51 unbeaten matches.

As a final this was far, far better than the drab Porto-Braga of 2011, a freezing night with thousands of empty seats. The visiting fans created one of the best atmospheres ever heard at this stadium. But as a sporting spectacle, it defied all the prematch expectations.

The Uefa guide to Dublin had, perplexingly, recommended those visiting fans sample three different potato dishes – boxty, champ and colcannon. Nobody expected that Leverkusen would play the first half like they had bellies full of spuds.

Granit Xhaka, so dominant here for Switzerland against Ireland in March, had a very different kind of night against the tigerish Atalanta midfield pair of Teeun Koopmeiners and Ederson. Xhaka gave the ball away with his first significant involvement, an error symptomatic of the issues that riddled Leverkusen’s usually smooth build-up play. Atalanta put them under large physical pressure and Leverkusen proved unable to cope.

The Italians had stormed to the final with 3-0 victories over both Liverpool and Marseille and here they did the same thing to the German champions. Fast start, intense pressure – and attack like you mean it.

The first goal came after just 12 minutes when Koopmeiners played a quick perceptive pass inside for Zappacosta, who surged clear of Grimaldo and crossed low. Lookman stole in on the blindside of the fatally hesitant Exequiel Palacios and shot high into the net.

The second goal came 12 minutes after that, and it felt like the kind of thing Ireland fans have seen so much of at the Aviva: a banal mistake punished to the maximum extent by a stunning finish.

Leverkusen keeper Matej Kovar, who had been playing the ball short all night, decided to go long for once, but Amine Adli’s header missed Florian Wirtz and instead bounced to Lookman in the inside left position. There were plenty of Leverkusen defenders between him and the goal but Lookman went through Xhaka with a nutmeg before whipping a sensational shot into the far corner.

Grimaldo, a revelation this season for Leverkusen from left wing-back, played in an attacking midfield role off the striker, Adli, and he missed Leverkusen’s two best chances of the first half: the first one missing his kick after Frimpong’s pace had created the opening, the second one hitting it straight at the keeper when a simple lob looked on.

Trailing 2-0 at half-time was not the worst situation Alonso had faced at half-time in a European final. His team had recovered from 3-0 at Istanbul. Alonso sent on a striker, Victor Boniface, for a central defender, Josip Stanisic, but kept the same shape: Grimaldo moved back into his usual left wing-back position and Piero Hincapie moving back into central defence.

Leverkusen had been 2-0 down on three previous occasions in this Europa League campaign and always recovered to draw or win. But they had not yet faced a team as fierce and clever as Atalanta. The comeback everyone expected never materialised.

Instead it was the Italians who got the killer third with 15 minutes to go. Centre-forward Gianluca Scamacca, who had endured a pretty poor night until that point, beat Tapsoba and passed outside to Lookman, who threw a stepover before blasting into the far top corner with his left. It was the goal of a player ablaze with confidence, and the first hat-trick in a European Final since Pierino Prati scored one for Milan against Ajax in 1969.

Coming when it did, everybody understood what it meant. “Defeat is not in your vocabulary, you don’t understand the concept,” a journalist had told Xhaka the previous night. In the 52nd match of their season, Leverkusen and defeat were finally going to get reacquainted.

Atalanta are deserving and magnificent winners. They smashed the biggest sides left in the competition, one after another. Who could begrudge the joy of their outstanding coach, Gian Piero Gasperini, winning the first trophy of his career at the age of 66?

Leverkusen still have the German Cup final to come this weekend. A domestic double would mean this still is – and will surely remain – the greatest season in their history. But the chance to do what no club has ever done will not come again.

Of course, it would have been great to see a team do it – especially a team like Leverkusen – not a state-funded superclub or a quasi-national team – a team nobody could have dreamed would get close to this.

And at the same time, maybe it’s better for football if nobody ever achieves the perfect season, that the dream of invincibility remains an uncatchable white whale, forever out of reach.

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