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Michael Walker: From ‘Neverkusen’ to ‘Neverlusen’ – Alonso has achieved an incredible feat

Under the Spaniard, Leverkusen’s record reads W40 D9 L0 with the side also in contention to win a treble

Bayer Leverkusen manager Xabi Alonso celebrates at full-time following the Europa League semi-final match against Roma at BayArena in Leverkusen. Photograph: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

You best prepare yourselves for the amount of “howya Xabi?” on the way. Wednesday week, back in the Basque, sorry, old country, Xabi Alonso will be asked to talk the talk again about how he spent a teenage summer in Kells learning English while playing the GAA. You said they needed crash helmets, didn’t you, Xabi? Boom. One hundred thousand welcomes.

A nice man, a polite man, Alonso will oblige. He may pose for photographs, speak about how much he enjoyed Irish culture and what it means to be back. Then the old Kells yarns will shuffle into the shadows and he will get to work.

And at a club known as die werkself, what a piece of work Alonso is putting together at Bayer Leverkusen. Having already knocked Bayern Munich off a Bundesliga perch everyone thought was a permanent structure, and reached the German Cup final, on Thursday night, playing some of the most intricate and exciting football you could wish to see, Leverkusen made it to Dublin for the final of the Europa League. Atalanta are the opposition and if you can get a ticket...

In drawing 2-2 at home to AS Roma in the second leg of the Europa League semi-final, Alonso’s Leverkusen made history. A drawn game may not sound momentous but this was a 49th match of the season and Bayer Leverkusen’s record reads W40 D9 L0. It is an incredible feat that takes in domestic and European football and broke Benfica’s 48-game unbeaten total which had stood for 59 years. Eusebio is company you want to keep.


Other statistics of a unique season bear repetition: the Bundesliga title was the first in Leverkusen’s history – and the club will be 120 years old in July. Alonso’s unrelenting team have scored 31 of their goals in the last 10 minutes. They have not been beaten since the last day of last season.

On Thursday Leverkusen once again displayed their will to win, or will not to lose. Holding a 2-0 lead from the first leg, somehow Alonso’s team were 2-0 down to two Roma penalties. It was 2-2 on aggregate, suddenly there was jeopardy and heads were being scratched; because while Alonso had rejigged the starting XI, left out a few key individuals, even as Roma converted the spot-kicks they were being outplayed by a team who flowed over and around them like water over stones. Leverkusen had 32 shots.

Xabi Alonso and his side celebrate as Josip Stanisic scores a last-minute goal against Roma in Europa League semi-final in Leverkusen. Photograph: Stefan Matzke/Getty Images

Yet it required an own-goal ricochet to get one back. That meant 3-2 on aggregate, Dublin and Xabi’s book of Kells stories; but it meant the unbeaten record was gone.

That was minute 82. There were then seven added on to the 90. The Europa League final was the target and Alonso’s players could have time-wasted and acted their way to guarantee it was achieved, but they did not. They kept moving the ball forward. In the last minute of the seven Josip Stanisic made it 2-2. The final was Leverkusen’s and the record was Leverkusen’s.

The place went berserk and even Alonso, so measured, ran on to the pitch in jubilation. “We still have the chance to win three titles,” he said, “and my boys deserve all three titles”.

No one was going to argue. Wednesday week versus Atalanta in Dublin is followed three days later by Kaiserslautern in Berlin in the German Cup final. (Kaiserslautern are 14th in the second division). Atalanta are not to be underestimated, but a treble could happen and it could be an unbeaten treble.

First there is a trip to Bochum on Sunday evening. This will bring back memories, just as Roma did. Last May the Italians knocked out Leverkusen at the same stage of the same competition and a week later the Bundesliga season ended with 10-man Leverkusen losing 3-0 at relegation-anxious Bochum. The club 45 minutes north of Leverkusen remain relegation-anxious, but their visitors are transformed.

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Alonso had been in the building eight months, now it’s approaching 20. Leverkusen were not some hopeless case – they were in the Champions League last season and had just beaten Atletico Madrid 2-0. They had been in Germany’s top six for the previous five seasons. But they were dropping down the league and of course pushing on, getting across the line had long been an issue. It was the cause of that nickname – “Neverkusen”.

Between 1997 and 2011, Leverkusen were Bundesliga runners-up five times, lost the German Cup twice and the 2002 Champions League final to Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid volley. More recently, with Kai Havertz and Leon Bailey in the team, they lost the 2020 Cup final to Bayern.

It is tempting to compare Xabi Alonso to Pep Guardiola due to their nationality and style – and there is something of the structured spontaneity of Guardiola about Leverkusen. Photograph: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista

Today they have a new nickname – “Neverlusen”. They keep scoring 90+whatever goals – 12 of them this season. Alonso has taken Leverkusen from nearly to really and he has done so with the same precision and spatial awareness he revealed week in, week out for 17 years as a crisp midfielder for Real Sociedad, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. There were 114 caps for Spain, one World Cup and two European Championships. This isn’t the first time people have said “what a record” about Alonso.

Neutrals were drawn to him because of the intelligence of his movement and the cleanliness of his passing. Even when he walked away from playing in 2017, looking over his shoulder, boots in hand in a black-and-white photograph, there was something about Alonso.

He has taken this aura into management. It is tempting to make a comparison with Pep Guardiola (who signed Alonso for Bayern at 32) due to their nationality and style – and there is something of the structured spontaneity of Guardiola about Leverkusen.

But there was a time when the team on show on Thursday might have been labelled Dutch. As Alejandro Grimaldo, Exequiel Palacios and Granit Xhaka clipped the ball around combative Roma, the auld Dutch triangles of Louis van Gaal came to mind. When Jeremie Frimpong collected those passes, or Florian Wirtz when he came on, there was Wiel Coerver technique on display.

“I loved the way he hit the ball,” Alonso once said of Ronald Koeman, “the talent he had to position himself”. It seems a simple comment but it’s deep understanding from a multilinguist articulate in football.

And where Alonso has positioned himself in 2024 is as the 42-year-old charismatic head coach of Bayer Leverkusen, a club who used to make outsiders shrug. No more.

That Alonso has chosen to stay when he could be on his way to Liverpool, maybe Real Madrid, is another slice of the appeal. But then he always had different vision.

Now Dublin is on the horizon.

So, Xabi, the hurling?