Bayer Leverkusen’s march to history continues in Wednesday’s UEFA Europa League final in Dublin vs. Atalanta

Hi there! Bayer Leverkusen’s historic unbeaten run headlines the Europa League final, while the coaching carousel cannot slow down in Europe. I’m Pardeep Cattry and here’s a look at the top stories in the soccer world.

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Wednesday, May 22

🇪🇺 UEL: Atalanta vs. Leverkusen, 3 p.m. ➡️ CBS Sports Network, Paramount+

Thursday, May 23

🇩🇪 Bundesliga relegation playoff: Bochum vs. Dusseldorf, 2:30 p.m. ➡️ ESPN+

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⚽ The Forward Line

🏆 Leverkusen, Atalanta battle for the Europa League

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Bayer Leverkusen’s quest to continue their undefeated season takes center stage today, when they take on Atalanta in the penultimate match of their campaign.

The Bundesliga champions are the heavy favorites in this one, which marks a quick reversal of fortunes from a team that was in the relegation battle when Xabi Alonso was hired in October 2022. As James Benge writes in his deep dive into Alonso’s rapid transformation of Leverkusen, it required tactical intelligence from the young manager, who focused first on defensive stability before moving onto offensive prowess. Alonso has gotten the best out of several players this season, including Leverkusen’s main man Florian Wirtz, who has arguably broken out as one of Europe’s elite midfielders along the way.

Benge: “Wirtz is the jewel 10. An outlet for ball progression, a carrier and creator in the final third, a decisive figure around the penalty area: the 21-year-old has all the qualities of an archetypal creator. What makes him the lodestar for this Leverkusen side is his off ball work. His teammates don’t have to accommodate Wirtz without the ball. If anything he leads the charge, competing in more duels than any other member of Werkself, making more ball recoveries in the final third than anyone in the Bundesliga. If that sort of player is creating six and a half shots for him and his teammates per 90 minutes, well then you’re working with something special indeed.”

Leverkusen’s dominance will likely require Atalanta, a team that prefers to have control of the ball, to change their strategy in order to succeed on Wednesday. The Italian side are not without their own qualities, though, as this season’s run to the Coppa Italia and fifth place Serie A finish demonstrate. Look no further than Atalanta’s talent on the wings, who Francesco Porzio writes might just be the key to their success.

Porzio: “The game will likely see its key part played on the wings, as both teams have two strong fullbacks. Atalanta will likely start Matteo Ruggeri on the right and Davide Zappacosta on the other side, but they will need to be really careful as Leverkusen can count on Alex Grimaldo and Josip Stanisic in the same roles. If Atalanta are able to stop the wingers, they have a chance to make it. Otherwise, it can become really dangerous considering the season Xabi Alonso’s boys are having.”

History beckons in Dublin, regardless of who wins — Leverkusen would win their first European title since the UEFA Cup in 1988, while Atalanta would lift their first continental trophy ever with a victory on Wednesday. This year’s Europa League final, as a result, is an exciting showcase for two teams on the rise and a wonderful reminder that the frequently predictable cadence of European soccer can, in fact, be disrupted with entertaining results.

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🔵 Chelsea, Mauricio Pochettino call it quits

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The coaching carousel earned another set of participants on Tuesday, when Mauricio Pochettino surprisingly left Chelsea after just one season in the job. The decision reportedly came after Pochettino and co-controlling owner Todd Boehly had dinner on Friday and Chelsea’s end-of-season review, and leaves Boehly and company looking for their sixth manager since taking over the club two years ago.

Chelsea will hit the managerial market alongside a laundry list of other clubs and considering the limited supply but incredibly high-demand, there are a handful of familiar names who are in the running to succeed Pochettino. Here’s James Benge with a quick look at the managers that might be in the mix.

Benge: “Chelsea are understood to be one of many keen admirers in Ipswich Town boss Kieran McKenna, who has also been linked to the vacancy at Brighton and Hove Albion. That vacancy was caused by the departure of Roberto De Zerbi, who has previously been linked with the Blues. He is understood to be keen to remain in the Premier League.”

As for Pochettino, this might be a fairly opportune time for him to be on the market after delivering a promising performance during his time at Stamford Bridge. Though he has yet to be seriously linked to any vacancies, several high profile jobs are still up for grabs, chief among them the Bayern Munich job that has technically been open since February. Vincent Kompany was the latest manager linked to that gig despite leading Burnley to relegation this season, a sign that the German team are struggling to line up Thomas Tuchel’s replacement. A job opening seems imminent at Manchester United after Erik ten Hag’s disastrous second season in charge, while other clubs across the continent are also hiring. Pochettino might just become the most coveted manager on everyone’s list, but the silliness that precedes a chaotic hiring spree in Europe means it’s hard to predict where anyone will end up by the time preseason begins.

🔗 Top Stories

👏 Kroos retirement: Toni Kroos will retire following this summer’s Euros and will go down as one of the game’s all-time greatest midfielders.

🏆 Europa League final: Here’s a look at the key players in Wednesday’s final, plus a glance at how Atalanta can take down an undefeated Leverkusen side. Plus, here’s how Italian managers have succeeded on Europe’s biggest stages.

🔵⚫ Inter ownership change: U.S. fund Oaktree took over Inter after Chinese conglomerate Suning failed to pay back a $428 million loan, but don’t expect big changes at the club in the short-term as Oaktree looks for a new owner.

🇺🇸 Hayes era begins: The Emma Hayes era has officially begun for the USWNT after her first roster dropped yesterday, featuring a mix of young talent and veteran experience.

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 England’s Euros prep: Gareth Southgate named a 33-player preliminary roster ahead of the Euros, leaving off big names like Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson.

🔵 Chelsea’s next move: Here’s a glance at who might be next for Chelsea and more coverage of Pochettino’s surprise departure.

⚽ Goals galore: After another high-scoring NWSL weekend, here’s a look at the wide range of goalscorers who were on the scoresheet — including the Orlando Pride’s Barbra Banda.

🇮🇹 Dispatch from Italy: Here’s a look back at Massimiliano Allegri’s turbulent second spell at Juventus, Lautaro Martinez’s case as the best player in Serie A and Fiorentina’s Giacomo Bonaventura on the team’s mentality ahead of next week’s Conference League final.

🔮 Way-too-early predictions: The 2023-24 Premier League season may have just ended, but it’s never too early to predict what will happen a year from now in England’s top flight.

💰 The Back Line

💵 Best bets

Europa League final: Atalanta vs. Bayer Leverkusen, Wednesday, 3 p.m.

💰 THE PICK: Bayer Leverkusen to win 1-0 (+650) — Atalanta have impressed on their way to the Europa League final and can be expected to keep things close but 50-plus games into an unbeaten season, it’s difficult to bet against Leverkusen. Expect another closely contested match — and perhaps another late winner from the German champions.

— Atalanta have impressed on their way to the Europa League final and can be expected to keep things close but 50-plus games into an unbeaten season, it’s difficult to bet against Leverkusen. Expect another closely contested match — and perhaps another late winner from the German champions. Europa League final: Atalanta vs. Bayer Leverkusen, Wednesday, 3 p.m. 💰 THE PICK: Victor Boniface to score (+115) — Leverkusen’s attacking players have split the goalscoring responsibilities admirably this season, but if there’s one person to bet on, why wouldn’t it be the team’s golden boot leader? Boniface has 21 goals in all competitions and has played a crucial role in their success this campaign, so he would be an appropriate choice to help them clinch their first continental title in nearly 40 years.

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