Xabi Alonso anticipates next scene of Bayer Leverkusen’s ‘movie’ in Dublin

<span>Xabi Alonso’s <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Bayer Leverkusen;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Bayer Leverkusen</a> take on <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Atalanta;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Atalanta</a> in the Europa League final in Dublin on Wednesday.</span><span>Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Uefa/Getty Images</span>

The last time the Europa League was played here, 13 years ago, Porto strolled to an anticlimactic 1-0 win over Braga. André Villas-Boas was 33 and about to take over at Chelsea after the dismissal of Carlo ­Ancelotti. He was calm, highly ambitious and had an obvious presence. Comparisons with José Mourinho were understandable and inevitable, but Villas-Boas seemed of a different order to other managers. He talked of a grand plan to compress his managerial career into a decade so he could move on to other things.

He got that bit right. Villas-Boas has not managed since leaving Marseille in 2021 after publicly criticising the club’s recruitment policy. He does not look like returning to the dugout any time soon; he never seemed like one of those football men for whom the game is an addiction. He has been a rally driver and now he is the president of Porto.

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After ­becoming the youngest manager to win a European trophy, he won ­nothing but a league and a cup in Russia. The bold man of the future turned out, in the broader sweep of football history, to be a minor detail.

Just as the comparisons between Mourinho and Villas-Boas were unavoidable, so they are between Villas‑Boas and Xabi Alonso. For his Bayer Leverkusen side, the Europa League final against ­Atalanta on Wednesday represents the second leg of a possible treble – just as it was for ­Villas‑Boas’s Porto in 2011.

Perhaps it is natural with the Bundesliga, which was always the priority, already claimed but Alonso seemed ­notably relaxed on Tuesday. Like ­Villas-Boas 13 years ago, before adversity revealed an occasional spikiness, he radiated calmness, authority and good humour, but there was also a modesty as he assessed his time at Leverkusen. “I was so young in my coaching career,” he said. “It was: ‘Let’s go see what happens.’ But in just a year and a half so many things have ­happened. We have built great chemis­try, the confidence is good and the mentality has been fantastic. Now it’s the moment in this last week to give our best.”

It was also striking how often Alonso spoke of confidence. Even when he talked of how their ­preparation through the year has got Leverkusen to this point, he seemed to be talking of mentality as much as on-field organisation. “I have a good feeling and I have confidence in our mentality. Football is so dynamic – the system is just a picture and the game is a movie.”

Alonso is nine years older than Villas-Boas was then (and only a year younger than Villas-Boas was when he managed his final game), but he, too, looks like the coming man. So far, he has paced his career perfectly, progressing from Real Madrid’s under‑14 side to Real Sociedad’s B team to Bayer Leverkusen.

Others after a season such as this, particularly with jobs available at Bayern Munich and Liverpool, two clubs for whom he played, might have been tempted to take the leap to a superclub, but he will stay at least one ­further year.

Whatever his emotional attachment to Leverkusen, it makes sense from an educational point of view for his first experience of the ­Champions League to come with a side he has fashioned. That, perhaps, is the advantage of having had such a stellar playing career: unlike Villas-Boas, or other coaches who were not ­players, Alonso is unlikely to slip from the foreground of the game’s collective consciousness any time soon.

Perhaps that always meant there was always a high risk of Villas-Boas being buffeted off course. The question about him was, initially, whether he could match Mourinho’s feat from eight years earlier of following up the Uefa Cup/Europa League with the Champions League. He did not (although the team he had joined did, having sacked him).

To have matched the achievement with Porto would, even a decade ago, have been miraculous; since Porto’s success in 2004, every Champions League winner has come from one of four countries. Such are the finances of modern football that for Alonso to win the Champions League with Leverkusen next season would seem almost equally extraordinary.

Not that the Europa League final should be regarded as a given. Gian Piero Gasperini, at 66, is at the opposite end of his coaching career to Alonso, and in leading Atalanta to Champions League qualification this season for him has been not much less remarkable than Alonso’s. Like Sevilla’s José Luis Mendilibar last season, the Europa League represents an opportunity for a first trophy. He spoke of having “a great deal of respect” for Leverkusen and what they have achieved but, as their captain, the former Middlesbrough midfielder Marten de Roon, who will miss the game with a knee injury, said: “That we can be the first team to beat them is added motivation.”

But on 51 previous occasions, teams have said something similar this season and there is little sense Leverkusen are sated yet. “We know we can make this season even more special than it’s been so far,” the defender Jonathan Tah said. “It’s not difficult to focus on a big final.”