Lookman nets hat-trick as Atalanta end Leverkusen’s unbeaten run in Europa final

Published May 24, 2024
ATALANTA’S players celebrate with the Europa League trophy on the podium after defeating Bayer Leverkusen in the final at the Dublin Aviva Stadium.—AFP
ATALANTA’S players celebrate with the Europa League trophy on the podium after defeating Bayer Leverkusen in the final at the Dublin Aviva Stadium.—AFP

DUBLIN: 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 scored a stunning hat-trick as Atalanta beat Leverkusen 3-0 in the Europa League final on Wednesday to win just the second major trophy in their 117-year history and end the German champions’ remarkable 51-match unbeaten run.

Lookman, who struggled to establish himself in the English Premier League with Everton, Fulham and Leicester City before reviving his career in Italy under Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini, became the first player to score a hat-trick in a European final since 1975 to secure Atalanta’s first ever continental trophy.

The London-born Nigeria international was ruthless in punishing big errors by Leverkusen players to score twice in the first 26 minutes of a game where the favourites never looked at ease. He capped his solo show with an arrowing shot 15 minutes from fulltime and the Bergamo club ended the 61-year wait since their 1963 Italian Cup triumph.

“It’s one of the best nights of my life,” said the 26-year-old Lookman, who has at times endured a nomadic career, bouncing around the lower reaches of the Premier League on loan spells at Fulham and Leicester after being discarded by RB Leipzig, before finding the club that fully appreciated him.

“I’ve always had the confidence. In the past few years I’ve been able to take my game to a new level and show that on a more consistent basis. I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made but this is just the beginning. I hope for more nights like this.”

Atalanta have long lived in the shadow of nearby giants AC and Inter Milan. However, they have enjoyed a golden era under Gasperini, reaching the Champions League on four occasions, and now have silverware to show for it.

“To win it with Atalanta is perhaps one of the football fairytales that rarely gives scope for meritocracy,” said Gasperini, who ended his own two-decade long pursuit of major silverware. “It doesn’t always come down to cold hard numbers or super leagues but shows teams without huge budgets can achieve big things.”

Just as they did against Premier League heavyweights Liverpool and three-times finalists Olympique de Marseille in the previous two rounds, Atalanta didn’t give their opponents a sniff to mark their first European final with a famous victory.

“We needed to be attacking, it was not enough just to defend. We know these teams are great at attacking. Everyone was extraordinary,” Gasperini said, referring to the teams his side beat to become the first Italian winners of the competition since Parma 25 years ago.

“The way we did it was the most important thing, we deserved it without a shadow of a doubt against such a strong team. Winning the Europa League is an extraordinary achievement.”

ATALANTA’S Ademola Lookman (L) scores past Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Matej Kovar.—Reuters
ATALANTA’S Ademola Lookman (L) scores past Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Matej Kovar.—Reuters

Leverkusen have made a habit of late fightbacks in their remarkable run to winning a first ever Bundesliga title without tasting defeat.

But this time they failed to dig themselves out of a hole created by a slow start and looked a side drained by their record run across three competitions.

“It’s a shame that the time it didn’t work out for us was in a final,” said Leverkusen midfielder Granit Xhaka. “It’s bitter, definitely, we lost a final today but we go on and we’ll make up for it on Saturday [in the German Cup final].”

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

“The normality is not to get defeated in the 52nd game. Normally it happens much earlier in the season. It’s been quite exceptional what we have achieved and we have to be really proud,” Alonso told a news conference.

“We were missing many things for sure. It’s very demanding to play against Atalanta, a lot of dual situations, very physical... It happens, it’s football, today wasn’t our day. They were better. We have to deal with this pain in a positive way. We were not on our best level, so we will learn from today.”

Alonso’s big selection call on 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 at the Aviva Stadium.

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.

Lookman was mobbed by his team-mates and substitutes who were in dreamland 14 minutes later.

Another Leverkusen error gifted possession to the Nigeria forward, who nutmegged Xhaka and curled a beautiful right-footed shot into the bottom-right corner from just outside the box.

Atalanta were happy to soak up the Leverkusen pressure after the break and hit on the counter-attack. The final blow was another fabulous finish from Lookman as he skipped past Edmond Tapsoba and this time blasted into the top corner on his weaker left foot.

He became the sixth person to score three goals in a major European final and first since Jupp Heynckes’ for Borussia Moenchengladbach in the 1975 UEFA Cup.

Atalanta had lost all three of their previous finals under Gasperini, most recently in last week’s Coppa Italia defeat to Juventus. But this time they were not to be denied their shot at history as they were roared across the finishing line by the thousands clad in blue and black that had made the trip from northern Italy to the Irish capital.

Four years ago, Bergamo was among the first and most stricken European cities in the Covid-19 pandemic that hit northern Italy hard. “We won’t be able to do away with all of that pain,” said Gasperini, who has coached Atalanta since 2016, “but we have managed to put a smile on the Bergamesque people.”

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2024

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