UEL: Clutch Lookman takes responsibility for Atalanta to validate Gasperini’s methods

Ademola Lookman's Europa League heroics ended Atalanta's wait for a major honour (Imago/AFLOSPORT/Jan Huebner)


Ademola Lookman netted a Europa League final hat-trick for Atalanta against Bayer Leverkusen (Imago/AFLOSPORT/Jan Huebner)

UEL: Clutch Lookman takes responsibility for Atalanta to validate Gasperini’s methods

Seye Omidiora 06:13 - 23.05.2024

The Nigerian scored La Dea's first European final goal, set an African record with his second and made Europa League history with his third as the Bergamaschi ended Bayer Leverkusen's year-long undefeated streak.

Circa three months back, Ademola Lookman was withdrawn with Nigeria’s Super Eagles seeking a winner in the Africa Cup of Nations final against Ivory Coast

Having decided games against Cameroon and Angola with his timely execution in Cote d’Ivoire, Lookman had little left in the tank in Ebimpe to influence proceedings against the Elephants, with Nigeria’s dream of a fourth African title ultimately ending in disappointment. 

Fast forward to the business end of the campaign, and the Nigerian was front and centre in La Dea’s historic European season, scoring a stunning Europa League final hat-trick to end Bayer Leverkusen’s unbeaten treble dream at Aviva Stadium.

Atalanta vs Leverkusen

Ademola Lookman
Ademola Lookman celebrates after winning the Europa League final for Atalanta (Credit: IMAGO)

It took Lookman only 12 minutes to make his mark on proceedings in Dublin, ghosting in on Exequiel Palacious’ blindside to dispatch Davide Zappacosta’s low cross into a dangerous spot. The first may have demonstrated his menacing penalty-box threat, but the second was better and the third was devastating. 

A ball loss inside Leverkusen’s half saw the ball fall to Lookman, who took charge of the situation by beating Granit Xhaka with some ease before curling his finish into the bottom-right corner. 

Ademola Lookman
Ademola Lookman finished with aplomb for his and Atalanta's second goal against Bayer Leverkusen (Credit: Squawka/X)

Leverkusen’s tendency to fight back from losing positions meant nobody could state with all certainty that the final was done.

The expectation at the back of many minds was for Alonso’s men to come out stronger after the interlude, keen to right the perceived wrongs on their first European final since that 2002 heart-wrenching Champions League final loss to Real Madrid

Not this time. It almost felt like Die Werkself were overwhelmed by the occasion against the Italians playing at this level for the first time in the club’s history. Seemingly easy passes were misplaced and attacking patterns did not come off with the typical smoothness.  

The upshot of that was Leverkusen’s inability to attack Atalanta with real conviction, and Lookman made sure of the result with a decisive punch with 15 minutes of the 90 remaining. The Nigerian was the game’s undoubted difference-maker.

For anyone into Expected Goals (xG), Leverkusen’s 0.77 was pretty close to Atalanta’s 0.81. La Dea netting three times from xG not tallying up to 1.0 underlined Lookman’s brilliance on the night. 

For anyone into Expected Goals on Target (xGOT, effectively indicating finishing ability for shots on target), it is striking a goalscoring chance with an xG value of 0.11 ended with the Super Eagles forward boosting his prospects with his finish, resulting in an xGOT value of 0.71 to notch the game's first strike.

Ademola Lookman
Atalanta's Ademola Lookman scored a historic hat-trick against Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League final (Credit: Imago/Insidefoto) Atalanta's Ademola Lookman scored two first-half goals against Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League final (Credit: Imago/Insidefoto)

For the second, Lookman’s low-percentage 0.04 xG shot resulted in an xGOT value of 0.41 after finding the bottom-right corner and the left-footed drive that completed the scoring saw the 26-year-old’s 0.16 xG attempt result in 0.31 xGOT after a powered effort that enhanced the possibility of beating Matej Kovar. And it did.

Lookman was the difference between the sides. He notched Atalanta’s first goal in a European decider with the opening goal, became the first player to score twice in a Europa League final since Luuk de Jong did for Sevilla against Inter in 2020, became the first African to score twice in a major European final and is the standalone holder of scoring three times in the competition’s final in its current guise. 

Wednesday night in Dublin was historic for the Nigerian, but it was no fluke or one-off. Lookman’s influence in the knockout stage was underscored by scoring the equaliser against Sporting CP in the Last-16 second leg, notching the first goal and setting up the next in the eventual 3-0 semi-final second-leg win over Marseille that secured a 4-1 aggregate success. 

He took responsibility when it mattered for the Bergamaschi, ending the club’s 61-year wait for a title, and silencing his head coach's naysayers for good. 

Gasperini, on Wednesday, became the oldest coach to be successful at a major European final and the second Italian trainer to claim the Europa League after Maurizio Sarri. It feels fitting that the Atalanta boss follows the ex-Chelsea coach, as both had their mentality and modus operandi questioned before success in Europe’s secondary club competition. 

Recent years have felt like vindication for some, labelled as not having a winning mentality or having what it takes to take their teams over the line when it matters. For Gasperini, losing another Coppa Italia final to a beleaguered Juventus last week gave critics additional ammunition.

Atalanta's Europa League success was the first of Gasperini's managerial career (Credit: Imago/AFLOSPORT)

Sarri did it at Chelsea, Luciano Spalletti — despite previous cup success at Roma and several wins in Russia, including two league triumphs — needed last season’s Scudetto in the eyes of many and the conversation surrounding Gasperini’s wait for a maiden title will stop now. 

The 66-year-old had previously not been interested in those conversations, instead viewing success differently given how Atalanta have gone from accepting bottom-half finishes in Serie A to competing for Champions League qualification positions despite operating on a shoestring budget. 

Gasperini guided the club to three consecutive years in Europe’s premier club competition, and will now lead them into a fourth unless he chooses to depart for Napoli this summer. 

It took 30 years, but success tastes sweeter for the forthright Gasperini. Several months after criticising Lookman’s attitude to being on the bench against Lazio in October 2023, the forward was the difference-maker on Atalanta’s historic night on the continent. 

The Nigerian’s decisive execution in Dublin will take some beating.