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After 51 unbeaten games, Leverkusen loses the Europa League final against Atalanta

After 51 unbeaten games, Bayer Leverkusen finally lost a football match. And the timing couldn’t have been worse, as it happened on the biggest stage. On Wednesday, Leverkusen played the UEFA Europa League final in Dublin 3-0 against Atalanta thanks to a hat trick from Ademola Lookman (12′, 26′ and 75′).

While Atalanta deserved the victory in every way, the result was a huge surprise. After all, you have to go back to May 27, 2023 to find a Leverkusen defeat. That match took place on matchday 34 of the 2022/23 Bundesliga campaign and ended with a 3-0 victory for Bochum.

Like Bochum then, Atalanta was also considered a big loser. But accountants and experts should have given this part more respect. After all, the team led by the excellent Gian Piero Gasperini also destroyed the excellent Liverpool on their way to the final in Dublin.

“It’s demanding to play against them,” said Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso after the match. “We couldn’t overcome the first wave of pressure. When we had a small lead, they were strong to turn it around. We were prepared for it. It’s a football thing. It doesn’t change my thoughts or my appreciation for my players. Happens. It’s football.”

Like Qarabag and West Ham, Atalanta tested Leverkusen’s resolve early on. The Italians were more physical, pressed high and seemed more determined in general.

On the other hand, Leverkusen seemed nervous from the start. Granit Xhaka and Exequiel Palacios in midfield had been brilliant all season, but today they made one wrong pass after another.

Then there was the tactical setup. It seemed like a mistake when UEFA revealed Leverkusen’s tactical line-up, with Jeremie Frimpong starting in attack alongside Florian Wirtz and Amine Adli. By playing high up the pitch, Frimpong lost his ability to attack the opponent using his speed from deep in his own half.

However, Frimpong’s decision was not the only oddity. The back three of Piero Hincapie, Jonathan Tah and Edmond Tapsoba also looked out of place at times. In fact, the entire balance of the Leverkusen team seemed off.

Finally, there was the problem with Wirtz. The 21-year-old super talent has been battling injury in recent weeks and has often come off the bench as a super substitute. That option was not available to Alonso today when Wirtz started. But the attacking midfielder never really looked comfortable on the pitch and Leverkusen looked lost without Wirtz at his best.

In fact, that was perhaps one of Leverkusen’s biggest problems. Too many star players seemed to be out of steam, perhaps in the shadow of a long season. Or perhaps they overestimated their own hype.

Either way, it wasn’t enough to win the club’s second European trophy, especially against an Atalanta side who were brilliant. First up, Ademola Lookman. The Nigerian striker had the game of his life and his hattrick will be unforgettable. However, it wasn’t just Lookman who stood out. Whether it was Charles de Ketelaere, Teun Koopmeiners or Davide Zappacosta, Atalanta’s stars performed in style and Gasperini’s men deserved to win the title.

“We have to accept today that Atalanta was better and deserved to win the trophy,” Alonso said. “We didn’t play well and we had too many problems. Today we had a bad day. “It hurts that it happened in an important game but we have to accept it.”

Meanwhile, this match could be a much-needed lesson for Leverkusen. Not only ahead of Saturday’s DFB Cup final against Kaiserslautern, but also ahead of next season. “Today was not our day,” Alonso said. “It will be a test to see how we cope.”

Manuel Veth is the presenter of Bundesliga Gegenpressing Podcast and the Area Manager USA in Transfer market. He has also published in The Guardian, Newsweek, Howler, Pro Soccer USA and various other outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @ManuelVeth and in Threads: @manuveth

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