The Malta Independent 26 May 2024, Sunday
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Leverkusen rally late in draw with Roma to preserve unbeaten record and reach Europa League final

Associated Press Friday, 10 May 2024, 07:10 Last update: about 16 days ago

Bayer Leverkusen had a double reason to celebrate in stoppage time on Thursday.

Not only did it reach the Europa League final and keep its treble bid on course but substitute Josip Stanišić's late goal preserved its remarkable unbeaten record as Leverkusen rescued a 2-2 draw against Roma.

Both had seemed at risk during the semifinal second leg after two Leandro Paredes penalties had made it 2-0 on the night and 2-2 on aggregate. But an own goal by Roma defender Gianluca Mancini eight minutes from time and Stanišić’s equalizer saw Leverkusen stretch its unbeaten streak to 49 matches.

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Leverkusen advanced 4-2 on aggregate and will face another Italian team on May 22 in Dublin after Atalanta beat Marseille 3-0 to advance 4-1 on aggregate.

“It’s pure goosebumps!” Granit Xhaka told German television RTL. “You dream of an atmosphere like this. You dream of games like this. As a kid, you want to be in these games and then when you equalize just before the end and get to the final, it’s incredible.”

The fact that its unbeaten record was preserved about 30 seconds away from coming to an end was another improbable finale in an impressive season for Xabi Alonso's team, which has already won the Bundesliga title and also reached the German Cup final.

Leverkusen’s equalizer was its 17th goal of the season in the 90th minute or later across all competitions and the third time it has come back from 2-0 down in the second half of Europa League knockout matches.

Roma, after losing the first leg last week, knew it faced a difficult task and star forward Paulo Dybala was only fit for a place on the bench after sustaining an injury against Juventus over the weekend.

Leverkusen had several chances to all but kill off the tie and went close in the 29th minute. A free kick was rolled across the outside of the area to Piero Hincapié, whose shot came off the left post, bounced off the back of Roma goalkeeper Mile Svilar and went across the face of goal before being cleared by Evan Ndicka.

Instead it was Roma that took the lead two minutes from halftime with a Paredes penalty after Leverkusen defender Jonathan Tah was adjudged to have pulled down visiting forward Sardar Azmoun — who is on loan from Leverkusen.

Svilar had pulled off an extraordinary double save moments earlier and the Roma goalkeeper continued his heroics after the break.

Roma was awarded another penalty in the 66th minute as a corner glanced off Bryan Cristante’s head and Leverkusen winger Adam Hlo?ek inadvertently brushed the ball with his fingertips.

Paredes kept his cool to drill the penalty into the bottom left corner and send the visiting fans into raptures.

Just as it appeared as if the match was heading for extra time, Leverkusen got the goal it needed to progress as Alex Grimaldo’s corner from the right rebounded off Mancini at the far post and dropped over the line.

Leverkusen had made a habit of preserving its unbeaten record with stoppage time goals recently but left it even later than usual before Stanišić — who came on in the 90th minute — cut inside and fired into the bottom far corner in the seventh minute of added on time.

“Definitely one of them,” Stanišić told RTL when asked if it was the biggest moment of his career. “I think that just shows what this team is, the fact that we came back and drew 2-2 in the end.

“I don’t think we would have cared in the end if we lost and still progressed because we really wanted to get to the final, but it’s even nicer this way.”

ATALANTA-MARSEILLE

After kicking out Liverpool in the quarterfinals, Atalanta marched to its first European final with a dominant victory over former European champion Marseille.

Amid a string of chances, Ademola Lookman put the hosts ahead after half an hour in the second leg in Bergamo with a shot deflected into the net by Marseille captain Samuel Gigot.

Lookman set up Matteo Ruggeri in the second half to double the advantage and substitute El Bilal Toure finished it off in stoppage time.

The biggest success in Europe for Atalanta so far was a semifinal in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1988.

EUROPA CONFERENCE LEAGUE

In the third-tier competition, Olympiakos set up the final in the Greek capital against last year’s runner-up Fiorentina by beating Aston Villa 2-0 in Piraeus.

After winning the first leg 4-2 in England, Olympiakos advanced 6-2 on aggregate to became only the second Greek team to reach the final of a major European competition after Panathinaikos in 1971.

Villa was seeking a first European final since winning the European Cup in 1982.

Ayoub El Kaabi, who led Olympiakos with a hat trick at Villa Park, stole the show again with both goals to move two clear at the top of the scoring table.

Fiorentina held Club Brugge to a 1-1 draw in Belgium on Wednesday, enough to advance to the second straight Europa Conference League final after losing 2-1 to West Ham last year in Prague.

The final will be held in Athens on May 29.

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