Loyalty raises respect for Europa League final coaches Alonso of Leverkusen and Atalanta's Gasperini

DUBLIN (AP) — Two admired coaches at opposite ends of their careers, with shared values of loyalty to their overachieving small-city clubs, will contest the Europa League final Wednesday.

Xabi Alonso has led unbeaten Bayer Leverkusen to an instant classic soccer story in his first full season in the job at age 42.

Gian Piero Gasperini at 66 is having perhaps the finest of his 21st seasons as coach, his eighth at Atalanta which continues to defy soccer gravity as a low-budget provincial club in the hotbed of northern Italy.

Gasperini on Tuesday joined the wide praise for Alonso, even as a former Liverpool and Bayern Munich midfielder, turning down recent offers from both to stay with Leverkusen next season.

“What Xabi Alonso has done is wonderful with the performances this season,” Gasperini said in translated comments. “He had the opportunity to go to a number of big clubs.”

The Atalanta coach had his own experience earning a chance to coach a former European champion, when he was hired by Inter Milan in 2011. It lasted three months and five games until he was fired.

Gasperini also had gone back for second spells at three other clubs that previously fired him before landing in his ideal place with Atalanta in 2016.

“The club believed in me when I wasn’t highly rated and that’s a great example for soccer,” he said Tuesday.

Gasperini quickly realized what he had with Atalanta, which had not played in a European competition for the 25 previous seasons before he was appointed. He said in 2017 “people love me in Bergamo, the club and fans appreciate me as a person and there is no point leaving a situation like that.”

Perhaps, though, the time has come with Gasperini himself fueling speculation this month that he needs a new challenge, perhaps elsewhere.

Asked Tuesday about picking a good time to go, Gasperini said: “We don’t have crystal balls, you never know what the right time is.

“The right time is when you win, when the performance levels never drop off and people still rate you,” he said, adding “we live more in the present than in the future.”

Atalanta already has a big win, securing a Champions League entry for next season by guaranteeing a top-five finish in Serie A. It no longer needs to win the second-tier Europa League to qualify for the elite European competition for a fourth time under Gasperini.

“Absolutely, it allows us to be fully focused on this cup final,” the Atalanta coach said of that pressure being lifted from his players. “We need to be very precise and switched on. (Leverkusen) really are a team, first and foremost.”

Alonso, speaking in the Dublin stadium news conference room more than two hours after Gasperini, said he would be meeting his counterpart for the first time on Wednesday.

“It’s going to be my honor. He’s a big personality in Italy," said Alonso, whose three major tournament titles with Spain included beating Italy 4-0 in the final of the 2012 European Championship.

“We know for five years that Atalanta have had a very clear identity. It’s a team that continues to press but they are not always gung-ho,” Alonso said. “Tactics matter but above all mentality. Either way, we have a game plan.”


AP soccer:

Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press