Bayer Leverkusen’s unbeaten treble spoiled by Europa League final loss to Atalanta

Spoiler alert.

Atalanta winger Ademola Lookman was unstoppable and Bayer Leverkusen’s impossible dream of completing an entire season unbeaten with a hat trick of titles proved to be just that.

Instead, Lookman was the hat trick hero in Atalanta’s 3-0 win over Leverkusen in the Europa League final on Wednesday.

It was a beating few saw coming for the new German champion whose European record unbeaten run was stopped at 51 games by a team that had won 3-0 in Liverpool in the quarterfinals.

Lookman, the London-born Nigeria international, was ruthless punishing big errors by Leverkusen players to score twice in the first 26 minutes of a game where the favorites never looked at ease. He capped his solo show with an arrowing shot in the 75th.

In any normal season, or a typical European final, Atalanta and its veteran coach Gian Piero Gasperini would be a feel-good soccer story.

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What is not to love for neutral fans in the big-money Super League era? A well-run club from a small provincial city playing attractive soccer on a modest budget for a loyal coach to lift its first top-level trophy for 61 years.

Instead, it fell to Atalanta to play the bad guy and stop Leverkusen’s shot at European soccer immortality.

Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso must now lift his players for the German Cup final on Saturday. They will start as heavy favorite to beat second-tier Kaiserslautern in the Olympic Stadium, Berlin.

As the minutes ticked down in Dublin, Alonso finally watched his team lose standing still and alone in front of the team dugout. He alternated between pushing his hands deep in the pockets of his slim-fit black jeans, then folding his arms.

A few meters away, a sprightly 66-year-old Gasperini — his black jacket zipped high against the evening chill — was dancing with his players and staff in anticipation of the final whistle.

Alonso’s big selection call Wednesday was to prefer Exequiel Palacios in midfield, over Robert Andrich, but the 2022 World Cup winner with Argentina was at fault for the opening goal.

Palacios, defending the far post, was utterly unaware of Lookman behind him when a ball across the goalmouth from Davide Zappacosta eluded everyone. Lookman darted in on Palacios’ blind side to score with a rising shot.

It was 2-0 in the 26th when Leverkusen yet again gave away the ball in the heart of its own half. Amine Adli’s aimless header back toward his own defense bounced to Lookman.

The former Everton player eluded Granit Xhaka’s tackle and curled his right-footed shot into the corner of the net beyond goalkeeper Matěj Kovář diving to his left.

It was the fourth time Leverkusen had trailed 2-0 in a Europa League knockout round game since March but its unbeaten run had never seemed more at risk. The season-long flurry of late and stoppage-time goals eluded Leverkusen this time.

Even before the Atalanta goals, fans from Bergamo — outnumbered about 12,000 to 9,000 by Leverkusen’s in the 48,000 crowd — mostly outsang their German counterparts on an overcast and breezy evening in the Irish capital.

The players responded with physical commitment from the opening minutes, harassing Leverkusen out of its typically elegant style with tight marking.

Leverkusen repeatedly gifted Atalanta the ball in its own half and created little. When scoring chances did come, Álex Grimaldo lobbed the ball weakly into the arms of goalkeeper Juan Musso who had advanced off his line, and Jeremie Frimpong’s volleyed shot went high over the goal.

USMNT soccer legend Tim Howard as he delves into the upcoming Paris 2024 Olympic soccer competition while addressing the challenges faced by U.S. Soccer on the Olympic stage.

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