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Bayer Leverkusen's two steps from soccer immortality start in Europa League final against Atalanta

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Bayer Leverkusen's two steps from soccer immortality start in Europa League final against Atalanta
Sport

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Bayer Leverkusen's two steps from soccer immortality start in Europa League final against Atalanta

2024-05-21 14:18 Last Updated At:14:21

Bayer Leverkusen is two games from European soccer immortality.

The new champion of Germany has 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.

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Leverkusen team poses prior to the start of the Europa League second leg semi-final soccer match between Leverkusen and Roma at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Bayer Leverkusen is two games from European soccer immortality.

Atalanta players celebrate at the end of the Europa League semifinal second leg soccer match between Atalanta and Marseille at the Bergamo's stadium, in Bergamo, Italy, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Atalanta players celebrate at the end of the Europa League semifinal second leg soccer match between Atalanta and Marseille at the Bergamo's stadium, in Bergamo, Italy, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini attends a Media Open Day at the Giulio Onesti Olympic Center in Rome, Italy, Thursday, May 16, 2024. Atalanta will play Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League soccer final scheduled for May 22, 2024 in Dublin. (Alfredo Falcone/LaPresse via AP)

Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini attends a Media Open Day at the Giulio Onesti Olympic Center in Rome, Italy, Thursday, May 16, 2024. Atalanta will play Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League soccer final scheduled for May 22, 2024 in Dublin. (Alfredo Falcone/LaPresse via AP)

Leverkusen's Josip Stanisic, center, scores a goal during the Europa League second leg semi-final soccer match between Leverkusen and Roma at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Bernd Thissen/dpa via AP)

Leverkusen's Josip Stanisic, center, scores a goal during the Europa League second leg semi-final soccer match between Leverkusen and Roma at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Bernd Thissen/dpa via AP)

Leverkusen's head coach Xabi Alonso celebrates with the trophy as his team won the German Bundesliga, after the German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and FC Augsburg at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Saturday, May 18, 2024. Bayer Leverkusen have won the Bundesliga title for the first time. It is the first team in Bundesliga history, that won the championship unbeaten for the whole season. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Leverkusen's head coach Xabi Alonso celebrates with the trophy as his team won the German Bundesliga, after the German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and FC Augsburg at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Saturday, May 18, 2024. Bayer Leverkusen have won the Bundesliga title for the first time. It is the first team in Bundesliga history, that won the championship unbeaten for the whole season. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

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 is 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 was 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 was 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.”

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 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 was 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 its 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 was minutes away from a semifinals place in 2020, neither has 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 has been a refreshing force under Gasperini and already has a place in the Champions League next season. In any normal year they would be popular first-time European title winners.

What Leverkusen has done is not normal, though, and a legend could be just days from being created.

AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

Leverkusen team poses prior to the start of the Europa League second leg semi-final soccer match between Leverkusen and Roma at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Leverkusen team poses prior to the start of the Europa League second leg semi-final soccer match between Leverkusen and Roma at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Atalanta players celebrate at the end of the Europa League semifinal second leg soccer match between Atalanta and Marseille at the Bergamo's stadium, in Bergamo, Italy, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Atalanta players celebrate at the end of the Europa League semifinal second leg soccer match between Atalanta and Marseille at the Bergamo's stadium, in Bergamo, Italy, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini attends a Media Open Day at the Giulio Onesti Olympic Center in Rome, Italy, Thursday, May 16, 2024. Atalanta will play Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League soccer final scheduled for May 22, 2024 in Dublin. (Alfredo Falcone/LaPresse via AP)

Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini attends a Media Open Day at the Giulio Onesti Olympic Center in Rome, Italy, Thursday, May 16, 2024. Atalanta will play Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League soccer final scheduled for May 22, 2024 in Dublin. (Alfredo Falcone/LaPresse via AP)

Leverkusen's Josip Stanisic, center, scores a goal during the Europa League second leg semi-final soccer match between Leverkusen and Roma at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Bernd Thissen/dpa via AP)

Leverkusen's Josip Stanisic, center, scores a goal during the Europa League second leg semi-final soccer match between Leverkusen and Roma at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Bernd Thissen/dpa via AP)

Leverkusen's head coach Xabi Alonso celebrates with the trophy as his team won the German Bundesliga, after the German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and FC Augsburg at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Saturday, May 18, 2024. Bayer Leverkusen have won the Bundesliga title for the first time. It is the first team in Bundesliga history, that won the championship unbeaten for the whole season. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Leverkusen's head coach Xabi Alonso celebrates with the trophy as his team won the German Bundesliga, after the German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and FC Augsburg at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Saturday, May 18, 2024. Bayer Leverkusen have won the Bundesliga title for the first time. It is the first team in Bundesliga history, that won the championship unbeaten for the whole season. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Police clashed Thursday with student protesters attempting to impose a “complete shutdown” of Bangladesh’s capital, following days of violent confrontations during demonstrations over a system of allocating government jobs, with media reports saying 10 people died across the country.

Dhaka-based leading Prohtom Alo newspaper, which has a strong network of reporters across the country, said they received reports of 10 deaths in Dhaka and elsewhere in the raging violence. The country’s leading English-language Daily Star reported at least seven deaths.

Authorities didn't confirm the figures immediately.

Prohtom Alo said at least six people died in Dhaka's Uttara area alone in clashes between the protesters and the security officials and ruling party activists.

The country’s state-run Bangladesh Television station’s head office was attacked as the protesters broke the main gate, and set the reception and vehicle on fire, a news producer and a reporter told The Associated Press by phone on condition of anonymity as they were afraid of attack.

“I escaped by leaping over the wall but some of my colleagues got stuck inside. The attackers entered the building and set furniture on fire,” the producer said by phone. He said the television continued broadcasting but some residents in Dhaka said they found no signal at home for the station.

Students have been demonstrating for weeks against a quota system for government jobs they say favors allies of the ruling party, but the protests have escalated since violence broke out between protesters, police and pro-government student activists on the campus of Dhaka University on Monday. Six people were killed on Tuesday, leading the government to ask universities across the country to close and police to raid the main opposition party’s headquarters.

As violence continued to take place Thursday, Bangladesh’s Law Minister Anisul Huq said in the afternoon that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked him to sit down with the protesters for a dialogue, and he was ready to speak with them on Thursday if protesters were willing.

On Wednesday night, the protesters announced they would enforce “a complete shutdown” across the country on Thursday in response to security officials’ continued attacks on the campus demonstrators. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party said that it would do what it could to make the shutdown a success.

Clashes continued as protesters attempted to enforce the shutdown Thursday morning. In Dhaka's Uttara neighborhood, hundreds of protesters were chased by police after they blocked the road and chanted. In other places, police fired tear gas and charged with batons to disperse the protesters, who threw stones in response. Scores, including police, were injured in the violence, said a spokesperson for the Dhaka Metropolitan Police.

Police said protesters attacked and set fire to a traffic police box and vandalized police vehicles amid clashes across the city.

Traffic was thin on Dhaka's usually clogged streets on Thursday morning, while many malls closed. Offices and banks opened, but commuters complained that transport was limited. Police set up checkpoints at the entrances to Dhaka University.

Local television reported violence in other cities including Chattogram and Khulna, while protesters also blocked some major highways.

Salma Rahman, an official at a financial institution in Dhaka, said that she left her car at home and caught a ride on a motorcycle. “Our office has alerted us to stay safe on the streets, as there is fear that violence could happen during the shutdown.”

Protesters are demanding an end to a quota system that reserves up to 30% of government jobs for family members of veterans who fought in Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. They argue that the system is discriminatory and benefits supporters of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose Awami League party led the independence movement, and they want it replaced with a merit-based system.

Hasina’s government halted the quotas after mass student protests in 2018. But last month, Bangladesh’s High Court nullified that decision and reinstated the quotas after relatives of the 1971 veterans filed petitions, triggering the latest demonstrations. The Supreme Court then suspended the High Court’s ruling and is expected to rule on Aug. 7. The government has also appealed the High Court decision in the wake of the protest, according to the attorney general's office.

Huq said the government was seeking an early hearing.

“I have already asked the attorney general to appeal in the Supreme Court on Sunday seeking early hearing,” he told reporters. The Supreme Court had earlier set Aug. 7 to decide on the quota issue. Friday and Saturday are parts of the weekend in Bangladesh. The court opens on Sunday.

“I am requesting all to wait with patience until the verdict is delivered,” Hasina said in a televised address Wednesday evening. “I believe our students will get justice from the apex court. They will not be disappointed.”

While job opportunities have expanded in Bangladesh’s private sector, many people prefer government jobs because they are stable and well-paid. Each year, around 400,000 graduates compete for 3,000 jobs in the civil service exam.

Hasina said there would be a judicial investigation into Tuesday's deaths and vowed that those responsible would be brought to justice.

“Some precious lives have been lost unnecessarily,” she said. “I condemn every killing.”

U.N. Human Rights chief Volker Türk posted on X that all acts of violence and deadly use of force must be investigated and the perpetrators held accountable. Türk said freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental human rights.

Bangladesh’s ruling party blamed the BNP for the chaos, and Dhaka police raided the party’s headquarters late Tuesday. Detective Chief Harun-or-Rashid said police arrested seven members of the party’s student wing, and said detectives found 100 crude bombs, 500 wooden and bamboo sticks, and five to six bottles of gasoline in the raid.

Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, a senior BNP leader, said the raid was a government attempt to divert attention from the protests.

Students clash with riot police during a protest against a quota system for government jobs, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, July 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Students clash with riot police during a protest against a quota system for government jobs, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, July 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Policemen fire tear gas to disperse students protesting against the quota system in public service in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, July 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Policemen fire tear gas to disperse students protesting against the quota system in public service in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, July 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

An injured policeman lies on a street during clashes with students protesting against the quota system in public service in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, July 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

An injured policeman lies on a street during clashes with students protesting against the quota system in public service in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, July 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Students clash with riot police during a protest against a quota system for government jobs, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, July 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Students clash with riot police during a protest against a quota system for government jobs, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, July 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Students clash with riot police during a protest against a quota system for government jobs, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, July 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Students clash with riot police during a protest against a quota system for government jobs, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, July 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Students clash with riot police during a protest against a quota system for government jobs, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, July 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Students clash with riot police during a protest against a quota system for government jobs, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, July 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Students advocating for quota reform in public service held a mock funeral at Dhaka University in memory of those who died during clashes, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Students advocating for quota reform in public service held a mock funeral at Dhaka University in memory of those who died during clashes, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Police fire tear gas shells and rubber bullets to disperse students shouting slogans in favor of quota system in public service at the university campus, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Police fire tear gas shells and rubber bullets to disperse students shouting slogans in favor of quota system in public service at the university campus, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Police fire tear gas shells and rubber bullets to disperse students shouting slogans in favor of quota system in public service at the university campus, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

Police fire tear gas shells and rubber bullets to disperse students shouting slogans in favor of quota system in public service at the university campus, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Rajib Dhar)

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