Wirtz returns to help unbeaten Leverkusen chase history

He came off the bench at half-time and scored a hat-trick as Leverkusen beat Werder Bremen 5-0 to secure the title in mid-April.
Bayer Leverkusen's German midfielder Florian Wirtz and his teammates celebrate with the Bundesliga trophy on May 18, 2024.
Bayer Leverkusen's German midfielder Florian Wirtz and his teammates celebrate with the Bundesliga trophy on May 18, 2024.(File photo | AFP)

LEVERKUSEN, GERMANY: Bayer Leverkusen's chances in Wednesday's Europa League final clash with Atalanta in Dublin have been boosted by the return of star midfielder Florian Wirtz to full fitness.

A crucial component of their maiden Bundesliga title bid, Wirtz has had to settle for a bit part role in recent weeks as coach Xabi Alonso, with games like this in mind, wrapped the 21-year-old in cotton wool.

With Wirtz forced to play through the pain of a muscle injury to his leg, Alonso has used the midfielder sparingly.

Wirtz has not played a full 90 minutes since Leverkusen's Europa League quarter-final win over West Ham on April 11, nine games ago, but has still made an impact.

He came off the bench at half-time and scored a hat-trick as Leverkusen beat Werder Bremen 5-0 to secure the title in mid-April.

In his next two league games, Wirtz laid on equalisers deep in stoppage time against Borussia Dortmund and Stuttgart which kept their unbeaten run alive.

Even with a team firing on all cylinders amid a 51-game unbeaten run in all competitions dating back to May 2023, Alonso knows Wirtz offers something unique.

While the club now boasts a squad the envy of many in Europe, Wirtz remains the club's only true superstar.

Wirtz turned 21 in May and has 18 goals and 20 assists in all competitions this season.

Born just 20 minutes away in the village of Pulheim, his performances have him earmarked for future Ballon d'Or honours, with some in the German media suggesting he may be an outside chance this year should Germany go far at the Euros.

The coach, who has repeatedly preached patience as Leverkusen have continued their rampage this season, has taken risks with Wirtz despite his injury.

Alonso admitted he had tried to rest Wirtz in the second leg of Leverkusen's Europa League semi-final against Roma, but brought him off the bench with nine minutes remaining and Leverkusen trailing 2-0, level 2-2 on aggregate.

The hosts scored a minute later to take the lead in the tie and added a second in stoppage time to stretch their unbeaten streak to 49 games, breaking a 59-year-old European record in the process.

"He couldn't run well, he was limping, but he wanted to help the team," Alonso said afterwards.

"He's still a pretty good player when he's 70 percent fit," Alonso said. "But he still needs a bit more time."

Wirtz missed the next two league games and returned on Saturday, with Alonso saying beforehand "he feels much better... (and) could play from the start."

'Laterkusen' chasing history

Coming into this season, the 1988 Europa League and the 1993 German Cup were the only titles Leverkusen had won in their 120-year history.

Having clinched the Bundesliga in mid-April, Leverkusen -- who face second-division Kaiserslautern in the German Cup final on Saturday -- are now two wins away from an unbeaten treble.

Without a trophy since the 1963 Coppa Italia, Atalanta will also be hoping for a drought-breaking victory -- but face a side who do not seem to know when they are beaten.

Even if Atalanta, who lost the Coppa Italia final to Juventus on Wednesday, manage to get a jump on their opponents, Leverkusen's record late in matches will keep Gian Piero Gasperini's side looking over their shoulder.

Leverkusen have scored 15 goals after the 90-minute mark this season, often snatching victory, or at least a draw, from the jaws of defeat.

While luck, momentum and an insatiable home crowed have played a role, opponents have struggled to keep up with Leverkusen's relentless ball movement and have faded late.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the Europa League. Since the knockout rounds began, 11 of Leverkusen's 12 goals have been scored after the 70-minute mark.

After Saturday's 2-1 win over Augsburg which sealed the unbeaten league season, Alonso said the scale of the task was "unbelievable, but we'll try it."

"With this atmosphere, with this energy, there are reasons to be optimistic -- and to believe."

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