Leverkusen and coach Alonso accept their first loss, now must lift themselves for German cup final

DUBLIN (AP) — It was five days short of a full year since Bayer Leverkusen and its standout young coach Xabi Alonso had lost a game of soccer.

The reality of sports bit hard Wednesday when the new German champion’s unbeaten run came to a shuddering stop in its 52nd game of the season, the Europa League final.

Leverkusen’s 3-0 loss to Atalanta's energetic, physical presence and the stunning hat trick of goals by Ademola Lookman was so total that it left no room for doubt.

“The normality is not to get defeated in the 52nd game,” Alonso said, reflecting on the first loss of his first full season as coach of a top-flight team. “Once it happens in such a big game, it hurts for sure. These defeats in finals, you don't forget them."

Now Alonso must lift his team for another final, the 53rd and last game of Leverkusen’s season, playing for the German cup title Saturday against second-tier Kaiserslautern.

“It is going to be a challenge for us,” Alonso, a 42-year-old Spaniard who once lost a Champions League final as a player with Liverpool, acknowledged. “When you're a runner-up it is really difficult to deal with. Tonight is not going to be an easy night.”

There was defiance in the Leverkusen camp from influential midfield anchor Granit Xhaka, who had never before tasted defeat with the club he joined last July.

Xhaka was still at Arsenal when Leverkusen last lost a game, on May 27, 2023 at Bochum to close that Bundesliga season – also by 3-0.

“Honestly, we’re not interested in the unbeaten record. We didn’t care about that from the start,” said Xhaka, though soccer fans worldwide very much did care about the record when play started Wednesday in Dublin.

“It’s about the game and unfortunately we lost a final today. Compliments to Atalanta.”

Xhaka hugged and spoke warmly on the field after the game with Atalanta captain Berat Djimsiti — two players born in Switzerland into families with ethnic Albanian heritage.

There was much mutual respect among players and coaches, and applause from fans on both sides.

They perhaps recognized kindred spirits in clubs from two small provincial cities punching well above their weight in European soccer. Both will be in the top-tier Champions League next season.

“It has been quite exceptional what we have achieved,” said Alonso, who accepted his team had been outplayed and often out-muscled by the Italian team's oppressive marking.

“It is very demanding to play against Atalanta,” he said. “There were a number of one-to-one duels where we came out second best.”

Alonso turned down job offers from two storied clubs he played for, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, to stay with this group next season.

One loss "doesn’t change my thoughts and appreciations for these players,” he said.

Now they have less than three days to prepare for a second cup final, in Berlin, and Alonso framed it as a challenge: “It will be a test how we deal with it."


AP soccer:

Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press