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regular-article-logo Sunday, 23 June 2024

Europa League Final: Lookman! Who has stopped Bayer Leverkusen's run 

The Nigeria forward became the first person to score a hat-trick in a Europa League final in the 3-0 win, which handed the Bergamo club their first major trophy in 61 years and ended the German champions' remarkable 51-game unbeaten streak

Reuters, AP/PTI Dublin Published 24.05.24, 11:06 AM
A jubilant Ademola Lookman (centre) holds the Europa League trophy as teammates celebrate after Atalanta’s resounding 3-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in the final at Dublin Park in Dublin on Wednesday.

A jubilant Ademola Lookman (centre) holds the Europa League trophy as teammates celebrate after Atalanta’s resounding 3-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in the final at Dublin Park in Dublin on Wednesday. Getty Images

Atalanta's Europa League hat-trick hero Ademola Lookman admitted that he had to wait a while for success after years in and out of favour at different clubs but said it was "just the beginning" after he sank Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday.

The Nigeria forward became the first person to score a hat-trick in a Europa League final in the 3-0 win, which handed the Bergamo club their first major trophy in 61 years and ended the German champions' remarkable 51-game unbeaten streak.

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"Maybe it could have come earlier, but it's come now," said the 26-year-old Lookman, who bounced around in England with Everton, Fulham and Leicester City and in Germany with RB Leipzig before settling in Atalanta two seasons ago.

"This is just the beginning. I hope for more nights like this and to keep getting better and better," he told a news conference.

Lookman, who was a youth international for England, credited the Atalanta coaching staff and leadership of manager Gian Piero Gasperini for his revival. Since arriving at the club, he has scored 30 goals in 76 matches.

He pointed in particular to Gasperini's belief in attacking football that has helped him to flourish.

"The first conversations I had with him made me look at football a lot different. It made things simple. It allowed me to play my game in a different light. I'm very grateful to him," he said.

Asked if he would have imagined such a night in his wildest dreams while starting out as a teenager at Charlton Athletic, Lookman responded: "Probably yeah."

"I've always had the confidence in my ability to create, to score goals, to help teammates. In the past two years I've been able to take my game to a whole new level," he said.

Stealth in the penalty area, balance on the ball, deft footwork, and precise shooting with both feet were factors in a standout performance.

And yet even Gasperini acknowledged he was not buying a pure striker when Lookman arrived at the club two years ago.

“He wasn't overly prolific in England,” Gasperini said.

The London-born Nigeria international offered a hat trick of ideas after the game for why he has flourished.

Love and support from his family and African home. The trust he felt from Gasperini. The calmness of life in the picturesque city of Bergamo.

“The unwavering support I get and the love back home from people is unbelievable,” said Lookman, who won an Under-20 World Cup with England before changing eligibility to play for Nigeria in 2022. “It gives me the motivation to try to inspire myself.”

Alonso pained

Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso said his side will over time look back with pride on their European record unbeaten run but must use the pain of Wednesday's defeat to spur them on for another final in three days time.

Leverkusen — or 'Neverlusen' as they had been dubbed after obliterating Bayern Munich's 11-year Bundesliga title monopoly in Germany — can still win a domestic double with victory against second-tier Kaiserslautern in Saturday's German Cup final.

But the drubbing ended a 51-match unbeaten streak and left Leverkusen agonisingly close to what could have been an undefeated season across all competitions.

"The normality is not to get defeated in the 52nd game. Normally it happens much earlier in the season. It's been exceptional what we have achieved and we have to be really proud, probably in some time but for sure this loss is painful," Alonso told a news conference. "We will learn because defeats in the final, you don't forget them."

Long derided as 'Neverkusen' for their failure to win a major title for decades, Leverkusen had won only two major trophies in their 119-year history before this season.

So while Wednesday's final could have delivered a second European title following the 1988 Uefa Cup success, a second-ever German Cup is nothing to be sniffed at.

"It will be a test how we deal with it because we have another big thing on Saturday," Alonso said.

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