Bayer Leverkusen two games away from unbeaten season but in the Atalanta philosophy every team is beatable

Journalists quiz Bayer Leverkusen manager Xabi Alonso on a multitude of topics from his summer in Ireland to Toni Kroos announcing his retirement from Real Madrid and Germany

Europa League Final - Atalanta v Bayer Leverkusen,

Aviva Stadium, 8.0pm, Virgin Media 2, TNT Sports 1

Xabi Alonso nimbly dances between Spanish, German and English. At the end of his Europa League pre-final press conference the Bayer Leverkusen manager remembers a teenage summer in Co Meath, where this impressive linguistic journey began.

“I came here at 14, to Kells, and enjoyed my summer. It’s always great to come to Dublin, especially since my Liverpool days, the connection with Ireland has been strong.”


Bayer are two games away from an unbeaten season. That the penultimate challenge is happening at the temporarily rebranded “Dublin Arena” on Lansdowne Road on Wednesday night, and with Alonso committing to the club next season despite strong interest from Liverpool for the Spaniard to replace Jürgen Klopp, it seems like the first-time Bundesliga champions have already overachieved.

Squashed between Cologne and Düsseldorf, the 12,000 fans who have travelled from the small city of Leverkusen can hardly be blamed for getting a little greedy. Same goes for the club that is named after a pharmaceutical company as €8.7 million in prize money is on offer for overcoming Italian side Atalanta.

Victory tees up a unique treble if they can beat German second tier side FC Kaiserslautern in Saturday’s cup final at the Olympic stadium in Berlin, which also hosts the Euro 2024 final in July.

Over 20,000 Italian and German fans visit Dublin for the final. This is an enormous figure when the population of Leverkusen, just over 160,000, and Bergamo, with only 120,000 inhabitants, is factored into the football equation.

The travelling media was not restricted to the competing countries as journalists from all over the world appeared to quiz Alonso on a multitude of topics.

On Toni Kroos announcing his imminent retirement from Real Madrid and Germany after the Euros, Xabi paid tribute to the midfielder who swapped clubs with him, Munich to Madrid, in 2014. “It is the right decision, I understand him leaving at the top with a Champions League final and for Germany, they will be able to enjoy him at the Euros.

“Toni is an extraordinary player, an icon, an example, he has marked a generation. I did not play with him much but I played against him many times, a great player.”

A Nigerian journalist introduces himself before demanding to know – on behalf of his entire nation – why Victor Boniface is not guaranteed a starting role. “He has come back from injury so we must be cautious with him…but you can tell Nigeria that we are very happy with him.”

English, Finns and Greeks were in the room, all searching for the secret ingredients that made a Xabi Alonso squad go unbeaten for 51 matches and counting. “We have a system, it can be flexible, it can change, but we have a way of playing since last year. Football is so dynamic. The system is just a picture and the game is a movie.”

It helps Bayer’s pursuit of an invincible season that Atalanta have already qualified for next season’s Champions League, in the fifth Italian slot, and that their coach Gian Piero Gasperini is openly concerned about “playing three matches a week”.

The Italians have already paid a heavy toll; club captain Marten de Roon limped out of last Wednesday’s Coppa Italia final loss to Juventus with a knee injury. The Dutch midfielder has been added to Gasperini’s backroom, having revealed on social media that “the most important week of my career became the biggest nightmare”.

This post prompted a slightly concerning yet heart-warming reaction from the Atalanta fans as de Roon awoke the other morning to a giant banner outside his house that read: “Sense of belonging, sacrifice and a sweaty shirt at all times. De Roon, you have already conquered your cup.”

“It brought a tear to my eye and shows me why I am committed to Atalanta and the city of Bergamo,” said De Roon.

Albania skipper Berat Djimsiti will lead the team out in his absence, and the big centre half wasted no time leaving the media duties to his injured colleague.

“Until now Bayer have had a perfect season,” De Roon continued. “I don’t want to say they have shortcomings, but every team is beatable. They appear invincible and often come back late in matches. We need to believe in our football philosophy and take the game to them to beat them.”

At least Gianluca Scamacca returns from suspension to lead the line for Atalanta, having scored 18 goals – six in Europe – since returning to Serie A after an uninspiring €30 million move to West Ham United for the 2022/23 season was hampered by injury.

“Scamacca has come on leaps and bounds,” said Gasperini. “We don’t have another centre forward like him. We are disappointed Marten won’t be involved, as a captain and a player he has given so much to Atalanta, it is a real shame he has to miss out on the most important match, a European final.

“It is not easy when you play three matches a week to produce your best football. We really have played so many matches. We have also asked huge sacrifices from the Bergamasque; money and time, travelling all over Europe.”

Travelling and winning at Anfield and in Marseille has helped the cause.

“It is not easy to get to Dublin from Bergamo so we hope to give them something to smile about.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent