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Six reasons why the Europa League final is football’s most exciting game

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Bayer Leverkusen and Atalanta have the chance to create history when they clash in the Europa League final.

The two teams face each other at the Aviva Stadium on May 22 – live on talkSPORT – in a game no-one expected at the start of the season.

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The Europa League final will take place in Dublin on May 22Credit: Getty

Liverpool, Brighton, Roma, Villarreal and West Ham went into Europe’s second-tier competition as the favourites in the group stages.

But one by one they have all been dumped out, with Leverkusen and Atalanta proving to be a class above the rest.

The majority of Ladbrokes Fanzone customers thought Liverpool would win the whole tournament, with 38 per cent of members backing the Reds to win the whole thing. But now as we approach the final, a huge 30 per cent of Fanzone fans are backing Leverkusen to win compared to just 5 per cent who see Atalantal lifting the trophy.

Xabi Alonso‘s Leverkusen, who have won their first Bundesliga title this season, have beaten Qarabag, West Ham and Roma to reach their first Europa League final since they won the competition in 1988.

As for Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta, they will be taking part in their first-ever European final after breezing past Sporting Lisbon, Liverpool and Marseille in the knockout stages.

And the final has the potential to be the game of the season, as talkSPORT.com breaks down why the clash promises to live long in the memory of fans.

Attack, attack, attack

The age-old saying of ‘attack is the best form of defence’ perfectly describes the two teams’ approach to football.

Alonso has guided Leverkusen to their first-ever Bundesliga title

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Alonso has guided Leverkusen to their first-ever Bundesliga titleCredit: AFP
Gasperini is looking to end Atalanta's 61-year trophy drought

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Gasperini is looking to end Atalanta’s 61-year trophy droughtCredit: Getty

German giants Leverkusen are the Europa League‘s top scorers with 31 goals, while they have also banged in 89 in the Bundesliga – 32 more than they managed last term.

Atalanta meanwhile have found the back of the net 22 times in Europe and on 67 occasions in Serie A – with only Inter and AC Milan scoring more.

Xabi Alonso gets drenched in beer by the Bayer Leverkusen players as the German side celebrate their first ever Bundesliga title

Pep Guardiola famously once likened playing Atalanta to ‘going to the dentist’ due to their relentless pressing and free-flowing philosophy.

Speaking after Manchester City‘s 1-1 draw in 2019, he said: “Playing Atlanta is like going to the dentist – it’s really, really tough and we knew that it would be. It was a great performance in every sense.”

Leverkusen’s Invincibles dream

Arsenal, Juventus and Celtic have all recorded unbeaten league seasons in the 21st century, but none of those accomplishments come close to the achievement Leverkusen are on the cusp of creating.

Alonso has guided his side to an undefeated Bundesliga campaign, and they are still yet to lose in any other competition.

Since the start of the campaign, Leverkusen have gone 51 games unbeaten, resulting in them reaching both the Europa League and DFB-Pokal finals.

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It is the longest unbeaten streak in European football history – and their never-say-die attitude has made that possible.

Leverkusen are yet to taste defeat in any competition this campaign

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Leverkusen are yet to taste defeat in any competition this campaignCredit: Getty

Leverkusen simply don’t know when they are beaten, as shown by repeated injury-time comebacks and last-gasp equalisers to keep their fantastic record intact.

Should they beat Atalanta and Kaiserslautern in their respective finals, it would mark the greatest football achievement in club history.

Old guard vs new blood

There is a staggering 24 years separating Alonso and Gasperini, but the two share the same philosophy, which is working wonders.

Alonso, 42, is in his first managerial role having taken over at Leverkusen in October 2022 – with his side second bottom in the Bundesliga.

And he has already won a major trophy – something that has eclipsed his counterpart in 21 years of management.

The 66-year-old has taken Atalanta to three Coppa Italia finals – most recently against Juventus this season – and has lost every one.

But he has transformed Atalanta from being Serie A relegation candidates to one of Italy’s top teams – guiding his men to Europe in six seasons so far.

Closing in on 850 games as a manager, all that is missing from his resume is a trophy, and what better way to do that than in the Europa League final which would end Atalanta’s 61-year trophy drought.

Gasperini has transformed Atalanta since taking over the club in 2016

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Gasperini has transformed Atalanta since taking over the club in 2016Credit: Getty

Redemption arc of ex-Premier League misfits

Both teams are packed full of former Premier League players who have blossomed into top-level technicians since departing England.

Granit Xhaka, who despite starring in his last season at Arsenal, was often criticised for making too many mistakes, while his ill-tempered antics cost the Gunners on multiple occasions.

But he has been nothing short of sensational since joining last summer in a £21million deal – chipping in with five goal contributions in 47 matches in all competitions.

Leverkusen also brought in Nathan Tella from relegated Southampton, with the forward scoring six goals – triple more than he managed during his time at St Mary’s.

They also have ex-Manchester United defender Timothy Fosu-Mesah on their books, but he has missed the whole campaign through injury.

Xhaka has been instrumental for Leverkusen since leaving Arsenal last summer

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Xhaka has been instrumental for Leverkusen since leaving Arsenal last summerCredit: Getty

Turning to Atalanta, and they have no less that six ex-Premier League footballers in their ranks.

Ademola Lookman, who came through Charlton’s academy before featuring for Everton, Fulham and Leicester, is a man possessed for Atalanta.

He has fired in 27 goals across two seasons so far, and is part of a formidable frontline that is spearheaded by ex-West Ham striker Gianluca Scamacca.

The Italy international spent one season at the London Stadium – where he won the Europa Conference League – before being shipped off after scoring just three top-flight goals.

But he is Atalanta’s top scorer this term with 17 goals – and he returned to England with violence on his mind after scoring twice at Anfield in the 3-0 quarter-final first leg win over Liverpool.

Ex-Chelsea duo Davide Zappacosta and Mario Pasalic are also two key players, as is former Arsenal left-back Sead Kolasinac, who mustered just three league appearances in his final two years in north London.

And former Middlesbrough Marten de Roon completes Atalanta’s squad of ex-Premier League men, with the 33-year-old spending just one season at the Riverside, where he was part of the side that were relegated in 2017.

Lookman has been banging the goals in since moving to Italy in 2022

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Lookman has been banging the goals in since moving to Italy in 2022Credit: Getty

Story of the underdogs

Leverkusen’s incredible Bundesliga success this season ended Bayern Munich’s 11-year monopoly in Germany.

It is the club’s first league triumph in their 119-year history – and this is just over 18 months into Alonso’s reign.

At the time of his appointment, Leverkusen were in 17th spot after eight matches – their worst start to a campaign since 1979.

And to commemorate a stunning season so far, the club have offered fans free tattoos to celebrate their historic term.

As for Atalanta, they have reached two finals this season as they look to win a first trophy since winning the Coppa Italia in 1963.

After returning to Serie A in 2011, Atalanta failed to finish in the top ten prior to Gasperini’s appointment in 2016.

They flirted with relegation in many seasons, before Gasperini took then to an unlikely fourth spot in 2017.

And they have failed to finish outside of the top eight under the veteran’s tutelage – highlighting the incredible job he has done at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia.

Alonso has taken Leverkusen from second bottom in the table to German champions within 18 months

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Alonso has taken Leverkusen from second bottom in the table to German champions within 18 monthsCredit: Getty

Luck of the Irish

Dublin will stage the Europa League final for a second time after the Avivs Stadium hosted the 2011 clash between Porto and Braga.

Porto won that match 1-0 thanks to Radamel Falcao’s 44th minute strike.

That goal clinched Porto’s treble, who also won the Portuguese league title and domestic cup.

And Leverkusen will be hoping it’s a good omen as they also look to claim three trophies to cap an unforgettable season.

With both Leverkusen and Atalanta knowing no other way than to push forward to score goals, all signs point towards an epic encounter in Ireland’s capital.

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