SoccerMatch Report

Lookman hat-trick for Atalanta wipes out Bayer Leverkusen’s treble dream in Dublin

English-born striker’s stunning performance overshadows the Xabi Alonso success story

Europa League final: Atalanta 3 Bayer Leverkusen 0

[Lookman 12, 26, 75]

All Atalanta ever won before this momentous Europa League final at the Dublin Arena was the Coppa Italia in 1963.

Incidentally, they lost to Juventus in the domestic cup decider last week. No matter. Ademola Lookman plugged himself into an electric occasion, plundering two first-half goals to hand Bayer Leverkusen their solitary loss from 52 matches this season.


The way Lookman completed his hat-trick deserves the ultimate reward.

Slices of history were made and erased on Lansdowne Road. Lookman is an English-born, Nigerian international who came through the Charlton Athletic academy before stints at Everton, Fulham and Leicester City, led him to a footballer’s life in Serie A.

It took 11 minutes of deafening sound, as German and Italian vocal cords reverberated, for Atalanta to break the deadlock via a striker’s finish to the roof of Matej Kovar’s net.

Leverkusen seemed lethargic from the off, failing to clear properly and almost inviting Isak Hien to step over Davide Zappacosta cross for Lookman to pounce. As the 26-year-old shuffled into the box, defender Exequiel Palacios slipped, giving him a free shot.

He needed no such luck for his second, dribbling off the left and cutting inside Granit Xhaka to open his body enough to curve the ball into the bottom corner.

“If Leverkusen score before half-time,” said La Marca’s correspondent, who was sent to Dublin to keep tabs on his fellow Basque and Bayer coach Xabi Alonso, “they will win this.”

The best chance fell to Alejandro Grimaldo but the Spanish fullback fluffed his lines, failing to clear Atalanta goalkeeper Juan Musso with a weak lob.

Charles De Ketelaere really should have made it 3-0 to the Italians but, again, a tame shot was gathered by Kovar. The jaded-looking, first-time Bundesliga champions survived the opening 45 minutes, nothing more.

Alonso reacted by replacing a defender with a striker as Victor Boniface came in for Josip Stanišić.

But the game belonged to one man. With 15 minutes remaining, Lookman took a pass from Gianluca Scamacca, evaded Edmond Tapsoba and let fly with an effort that created a silence and an eruption of joy at either end of the ground.

The Europa League used to be the Uefa Cup. It holds many memories for those who took its storied trophy back to their city, but this meeting of the small football markets, with the combined populations of Leverkusen and Bergamo under 300,000, should spread hope in this age of state-sponsored, hedge-fund-controlled clubs dotted across the European football landscape.

Or not. In 2022 Stephen Pagliuca, a New York equity investor and co-owner of NBA franchise the Boston Celtics, took a majority stake in Atalanta while a clue to Bayer’s ownership is in its name; the pharmaceutical giant has an exemption from German football’s 50 plus 1 rule that requires clubs to be controlled by fans.

Like Toyota City in Japan, Leverkusen was built around a corporation with a chequered history that includes the trademark and commercialisation of heroin. The Germans have a word for this: vergangenheitsbewältigung translates as the “struggle of overcoming the past.”

Even its football past. Anyone for a German football story from 1988? Leverkusen lifted the silver Uefa vase that summer. Back then, the final was played over two legs with Espanol taking a 3-0 lead to the Ulrich-Haberland stadium in Leverkusen where South Korea’s Cha Bum-kun’s 81st minute header forced extra-time and eventually penalties. Leverkusen prevailed.

Flash forward 14 years and they only qualified for the Champions League by beating Red Star Belgrade before squeezing out of a group containing Barcelona, Lyon and Fenerbahçe and then topping a second round group that contained Juventus, Arsenal and Deportivo La Coruna, to reach the last eight.

With Michael Ballack a driving force in midfield, Liverpool and then Manchester United were overcome before The Galacticos of Real Madrid stamped out any romantic ideas with Zinedine Zidane’s volley for the ages.

Leverkusen completed an unwanted runners-up treble in 2002, also losing the German cup final to Schalke 04 and finishing a single point behind Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund.

“You don’t always get the rewards you deserve in football,” said Klaus Toppmöller, the-then Leverkusen manager.

Now came an actual treble tilt as FC Kaiserslautern, a second division club, await in Berlin for Saturday’s German Cup final.

Doubles last just as long as trebles. Atalanta lost their domestic cup final but now they have a trophy to take home to Bergamo for the first time in 61 years.

Lookman is the hero, the Londoner who looked up and snatched away Leverkusen’s quest for invincibility.

Atlanta: Musso; Djimsiti, Hien, Kolasinac (Scalvini 46); Zappacosta (Hateboer 84), Ederson, Koopmeiners, Ruggeri (Toloi 90); De Ketelaere (Pasalic 57), Scamacca (Toure 84), Lookman.

Bayer Leverkusen: Kovar; Stanisic (Boniface 46), Tah, Topsoba, Grimaldo (Hlozek 58); Frimpong (Tella 81), Xhaka, Palacios (Andrich 68), Hincapie; Wirtz (Schick 81), Adli.

Referee: István Kovács (Romania).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent