Bayer Leverkusen are two steps from soccer immortality, starting with Europa League final vs Atalanta

Bayer Leverkusen are two steps from soccer immortality, starting with Europa League final vs Atalanta
Leverkusen’s players celebrate with the trophy as they won the German Bundesliga match against FC Augsburg at the BayArena in Leverkusen on May 18, 2024. (AP)
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Updated 21 May 2024
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Bayer Leverkusen are two steps from soccer immortality, starting with Europa League final vs Atalanta

Bayer Leverkusen are two steps from soccer immortality, starting with Europa League final vs Atalanta
  • On Saturday, Leverkusen will be heavily favored to win the German cup final against a Kaiserslautern
  • The biggest remaining challenge for coach Xabi Alonso’s team is game No. 52 of 53, in Dublin against an Atalanta that are finishing the season strong.

DUBLIN: Bayer Leverkusen are two games from European soccer immortality.
The new champion of Germany have two cup finals in four days — starting Wednesday in the Europa League against Atalanta — to complete a previously unthinkable unbeaten season in domestic and continental competition.
On Saturday, Leverkusen will be heavily favored to win the German cup final against a Kaiserslautern team that finished 13th in the second division, not so far from falling into relegation playoffs.
And so, the biggest remaining challenge for coach Xabi Alonso’s team is game No. 52 of 53, in Dublin against an Atalanta that are finishing the season strong.
It feels fitting because the Europa League has been a regular drama for Leverkusen.
Three times in six games in the knockout rounds the team were 2-0 down deep into the second half and still behind entering stoppage time: In both round of 16 games against Qarabag and in the semifinals return leg against Roma.
In another streak-saving Europa game, at West Ham in the quarterfinals, Leverkusen were set to advance on aggregate score yet needed an 89th-minute goal by wing-back Jeremie Frimpong to draw 1-1 and stay unbeaten.
“We don’t want to wait until the last seconds of the game,” said Patrick Schick, whose three stoppage-time goals against Qarabag in March were key to advancing 5-4 on aggregate. “We would like to make it clear, really, earlier.”
Atalanta defender Berat Djimsiti acknowledged Tuesday it was “certainly added motivation” trying to be the team to beat Leverkusen. “They have achieved some extraordinary things this season.”
There have been other stellar teams in European soccer who added the elite Champions League to their domestic league title, unlike Leverkusen playing in the second-tier Europa League.
Still, Manchester United in 1999, Inter Milan in 2010, Barcelona in 2011 and Manchester City last year also lost some games and were wealthy clubs whose success could have been expected. Each started their season with established, star-packed teams led by coaches — Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola — who’d already won multiple domestic and European trophies.
This is Alonso’s first full season coaching at the top level. His team were in relegation trouble last season. There was no superstar transfer signing in the offseason.
“For me it’s very special,” the 42-year-old Alonso said last week. “My first title as a coach was the Bundesliga. It was super, it was very special. But a title in Europe would be wonderful and hopefully we will be able to say that.”
Alonso twice won the Champions League as an elegant midfielder, with Liverpool and then Real Madrid, who will play Borussia Dortmund for this season’s Champions League title. That June 1 final at Wembley Stadium is between two teams involved in the failed Super League breakaway in 2021 — Madrid driving it forward, Dortmund declining their invitation.
Bayer Leverkusen and Atalanta were nowhere close to being invited to the breakaway three years ago and today represent soccer projects that won respect from neutral fans across Europe.
Both are based in provincial cities, each with more than 100 years of history, reaching surprise peaks. Before this season, they had only ever won three trophies: Atalanta’s Italian cup in 1963 and Leverkusen’s 1988 UEFA Cup — the forerunner of the Europa League — and Germany cup in 1993.
While Leverkusen once lost a Champions League final, to Madrid in 2002, and Atalanta were minutes away from a semifinals place in 2020, neither have felt entitled to European success.
Their modest stadiums in Leverkusen and Bergamo add up to a combined capacity of about 51,000 that could fit into the Dublin venue, formerly Lansdowne Road, that will host them Wednesday. For a showpiece European final, the official limit is 48,000.
Leverkusen and Atalanta do not figure in UEFA research of the top-50 earnings list of European clubs for total matchday income from ticket and hospitality sales.
Two well-run clubs, relying on smart transfer dealings — albeit underwritten, respectively, by pharmaceutical giant Bayer and Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca — had combined total revenues last year that added up to about the same $500 million as Manchester City’s player wage bill alone.
Yet both Leverkusen and Atalanta, under coach Gian Piero Gasperini since 2016, play easy-on-the-eye soccer in attack and team-first defense.
“They play one against one on the whole pitch,” Schick said of Atalanta. “Wherever you move, you have one defender behind you so they don’t leave you the space to breathe.”
Atalanta have been a refreshing force under Gasperini and already have a place in the Champions League next season. In any normal year they would be popular first-time European title winners.
What Leverkusen have done is not normal, though, and a legend could be just days from being created.


Serbia FA threatens to quit Euros if UEFA does not punish Croats and Albanians over chants

Serbia FA threatens to quit Euros if UEFA does not punish Croats and Albanians over chants
Updated 20 June 2024
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Serbia FA threatens to quit Euros if UEFA does not punish Croats and Albanians over chants

Serbia FA threatens to quit Euros if UEFA does not punish Croats and Albanians over chants
  • “We will ask UEFA for sanctions, even at the cost of not continuing the competition,” Serbia Football Association general secretary Jovan Surbatovic said
  • The Serbia FA condemned the “shameful racist behavior” of the Albanian and Croatian fans and said the match should have been suspended

BELGRADE: Serbia soccer officials threatened to quit the European Championship after they were offended by fan chants reportedly heard during the Albania-Croatia match.
The game on Wednesday ended 2-2 in Hamburg.
Serbia started their second group match against Slovenia on Thursday afternoon in Munich.
“What happened is scandalous and we will ask UEFA for sanctions, even at the cost of not continuing the competition,” Serbia Football Association general secretary Jovan Surbatovic said.
“We will request UEFA to punish the federations of both teams. We don’t want to participate in that, but if UEFA doesn’t punish them, we will think about how to proceed.”
In a separate statement on Thursday, the Serbia FA condemned the “shameful racist behavior” of the Albanian and Croatian fans and said the match should have been suspended as soon as the chants started.
“Such insulting of a nation with cries that they should be killed has not been seen at sports events for a long time,” the statement added.
UEFA was yet to react.
The animosity between Croatian and Albanian fans toward the Serbs, and vice versa, dates to the 1990s wars in the Balkans.
Serbian fans are notorious for their chants against the Croats and Albanians as well as racist shouts and vocal support of convicted war criminals responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands during the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
UEFA fined the Albanian and Serbian federations 10,000 euros ($10,700) each after their first group matches for fans displaying banners with nationalist maps.
Each federation is responsible for the conduct of its fans, and UEFA charged Serbia and Albania with “transmitting provocative messages not fit for a sports event.”
Albania fans displayed a banner with a map of their country extending its borders into the territory of neighboring countries. It was shown on Saturday during the 2-1 loss against Italy in Dortmund.
A Serbia fans banner included the territory of Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008, and a slogan, “No Surrender,” in the 1-0 loss against England in Gelsenkirchen.
UEFA has also launched an investigation into claims of monkey chants aimed at England players during the clash.


New Asian champions to earn $12 million in prize money in club competition revamp

New Asian champions to earn $12 million in prize money in club competition revamp
Updated 20 June 2024
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New Asian champions to earn $12 million in prize money in club competition revamp

New Asian champions to earn $12 million in prize money in club competition revamp

HONG KONG: The winners of the new Asian Champions League Elite will pocket a minimum of $12 million, the Asian Football Confederation said on Wednesday in a major boost to club football in the region.

The competition, which kicks off with a preliminary round in August, is at the heart of a major revamp of club football across the continent and involves 27 clubs from 12 nations including Japan, South Korea, Australia and Saudi Arabia.


Shaqiri scores stunning goal in Switzerland’s 1-1 draw with Scotland at Euro 2024

Shaqiri scores stunning goal in Switzerland’s 1-1 draw with Scotland at Euro 2024
Updated 20 June 2024
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Shaqiri scores stunning goal in Switzerland’s 1-1 draw with Scotland at Euro 2024

Shaqiri scores stunning goal in Switzerland’s 1-1 draw with Scotland at Euro 2024
  • It is the sixth-straight major international tournament in which Shaqiri has scored, dating back to the World Cup in 2014

COLOGNE, Germany: “Shaq” did it again.
At the age of 32 and having left top-flight European soccer behind to play in MLS, Xherdan Shaqiri is back on the international stage and back scoring again.
His stunning first-half strike secured a 1-1 draw for Switzerland against Scotland at Euro 2024 on Wednesday.
It is the sixth-straight major international tournament in which Shaqiri has scored, dating back to the World Cup in 2014.
That’s three World Cups in a row and now three European Championships for the Chicago Fire forward.
“He proved tonight that he lives and breathes for moments like these,” Switzerland coach Murat Yakin said.
Shaqiri rolled back the years with a first-time curling effort from about 20 meters out at Cologne Stadium.
Scotland had led from the 13th minute when Scott McTominay’s shot took a wicked deflection off Fabian Schar to beat Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer.
But Shaqiri pounced on Anthony Ralston’s loose pass in the 26th to even the match with a left-footed shot into the top corner and past Scotland keeper Angus Gunn.
“If that chance falls to any other player in the Swiss team, it’s not a goal,” Scotland manager Steve Clarke said. “You knew when it was rolling toward Shaqiri it was destined for the back of the net. He’s a top, top player, so you don’t give top, top players that kind of chance.”
Shaqiri’s career has seen him play for some of Europe’s most iconic teams, including Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Liverpool. He joined Chicago Fire two years ago, but in that time has continued to produce for his country on the biggest stage.
“Shaq always gives everything in training,” Switzerland defender Manuel Akanji said. “I don’t know how many other players are able to score that goal.”
The draw leaves Switzerland on four points, second in Group A behind Germany and likely to advance to the round of 16.
Germany became the first nation to advance to the round of 16 after 2-0 win over Hungary.
Scotland’s hopes of making the knockout round depend on its final game against Hungary on Sunday and results elsewhere. No team has failed to advance from the group stage with four points.
Both teams had chances to win the game.
The Swiss should have taken the lead just before the hour mark when Dan Ndoye turned Kieran Tierney on the edge of the box. With just goalkeeper Angus Gunn to beat, Ndoye fired wide of goal.
Grant Hanley then headed against the post from a Scotland free kick and Switzerland’s Zeki Amdouni headed wide at the far post late on.
Scotland has never advanced beyond the group stage of a World Cup or Euros on 11 previous attempts.
But repeated disappointment doesn’t seem to dampen optimism among its fans, who filled Cologne’s square before the game.
Swiss fans were out in numbers, too, creating a raucous atmosphere in the stadium.
It was certainly a more enjoyable evening for Scotland’s fans than the opening game of the Euros — a 5-1 loss to Germany.
“It was what we expected. It was a good reaction to a disappointing night. We’re still alive in the tournament,” Clarke said.
Goals from Jamal Musiala and İlkay Gündoğan made it two wins from two for host Germany after victory against Hungary and ensured there would be no repeat of its group stage exit from the 2022 World Cup.
Albania substitute Klaus Gjasula scored in the fifth minute of stoppage time to hold World Cup semifinalist Croatia to a 2-2 draw in Group B. Gjasula’s own goal, just four minutes after entering the game in the second half, had looked like handing Croatia the win until his late strike.


Lionel Messi could be playing in his final tournament with Argentina at Copa America

Lionel Messi could be playing in his final tournament with Argentina at Copa America
Updated 20 June 2024
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Lionel Messi could be playing in his final tournament with Argentina at Copa America

Lionel Messi could be playing in his final tournament with Argentina at Copa America
  • “The moment I feel that I am not going to help my team, I will retire,” Messi said in March in an interview with Saudi broadcaster Riyadh Season
  • He spends time with his three children, starts new businesses and lives as if soccer is slowly becoming a smaller part of his life

BUENOS AIRES: It’s sad but true, Copa America could mark Lionel Messi’s final chapter with Argentina’s national soccer team.

The World Cup winner will turn 37 during the tournament in the US, which kicks off Thursday. He’s clearly past his peak at Inter Miami after two decades of playing at the highest level in Europe.

Messi has not set a date for his retirement and has kept the door open to playing in a sixth World Cup in 2026 to defend his title from Qatar. But he already recognizes his shortcomings.

“I don’t think about that yet. The moment I feel that I am not going to help my team, I will retire,” Messi said in March in an interview with Saudi broadcaster Riyadh Season. “I always ate well, trained. But as I grew I became aware that the physical effort we make is getting harder. As you grow old, things become more difficult.”

Last year, the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner struggled with muscular injuries while playing in MLS and for Argentina. That didn’t change much in 2024.

Messi has shown he enjoys going out at night with his wife, Antonella, and his friends in Miami. He spends time with his three children, starts new businesses and lives as if soccer is slowly becoming a smaller part of his life.

Still, he has 12 goals and 13 assists for Inter Miami this season.

“I have a good time at the club. I am lucky to have teammates and friends (Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, all former Barcelona players) by my side,” Messi told ESPN. ”I have a good time in the national team, where I have teammates and friends, too. And I enjoy the little details that I know that when I don’t play anymore, I’m going to miss.”

Angel di Maria, a 36-year-old winger who has played alongside Messi for years with the national team, is sure to bid farewell to international soccer after the Copa America. That has also brought more questions about whether the team’s biggest star will remain on the squad.

“As long as I feel like I’m fine and I can continue contributing, I’m going to do it. Today, the only thing I think about is getting to the Copa America well and being able to compete in it,” Messi told the Star Plus platform in December. “Fighting for it again, as we always did, trying to be champions.”

Argentina’s all-time top scorer and the national team’s leader with 26 World Cup appearances is also seeking records in the continental competition.

Messi, who won the South American championship in 2021, wants to become the Copa America’s leading scorer. He has 13 goals in six editions, four behind Norberto Méndez of Argentina and Zizinho of Brazil with 17.

He also wants to be the player with most appearances in the Copa America, a record he currently shares with former Chile goalkeeper Sergio Livingston, both with 34 games.

Messi’s teammates don’t want to see him go.

“We’ll see how long, but while he’s here we’re going to enjoy it to the fullest,” Argentina defender Cristian Romero said. “We grew up watching him. We are part of those tournaments.”


Playing Italy like ‘looking in a mirror’, says Spain’s De la Fuente

Playing Italy like ‘looking in a mirror’, says Spain’s De la Fuente
Updated 19 June 2024
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Playing Italy like ‘looking in a mirror’, says Spain’s De la Fuente

Playing Italy like ‘looking in a mirror’, says Spain’s De la Fuente
  • “They’re very similar to us, they have changed coach and they have young players,” De la Fuente told reporters
  • “I think it will be a very high quality match“

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany: Luis de la Fuente said on Wednesday he was struck by the similarities between his Spain team and Italy as the pair aim to secure qualification for the knockout stage of Euro 2024.
La Roja and champions Italy have undergone a change in playing personnel over the last year, and have young blood throughout their squads.
Spain are more direct than under previous coach Luis Enrique while Luciano Spalletti is attempting get Italy to play a high-intensity attacking style with which he won the Serie A title for Napoli.
“They’re very similar to us, they have changed coach and they have young players. They are very competitive,” De la Fuente told reporters.
“It’s almost like we’re looking in a mirror actually. We are a growing, developing team which is working on cohesion and consistency and so are they. I think it will be a very high quality match.”
Spain have faced Italy at each of the last four Euros and meet in Gelsenkirchen on Thursday where both teams can ensure top spot in Group B with a win.
They are locked on three points at the top of the group, two ahead of Albania and Croatia who played out an exciting 2-2 draw earlier on Wednesday.
And De la Fuente, who has a fully fit squad at his disposal, is in no doubt that his team will play to win rather than try to not lose and then attempt to secure top spot in their final group game with Albania.
“Without doubt we want to win. This game most important game for us so far,” he said.
“That is the only thing we’re thinking about... We play all matches to win. I don’t know how to play any other way.”
Fabian Ruiz, who will face his former coach at Napoli in Spalletti, shrugged off talk of Spain being favorites for the Euros despite their blistering debut win over Croatia.
“We don’t see ourselves as favorites but we have confidence in our potential,” said Fabian Ruiz.
“We know we have the quality to get to the final and we’ll do what we can to get there. Maybe if we get to the final I’ll be able to tell you whether we’re favorites or not. But it’s very difficult to win a tournament.”