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Alonso bids to shed ‘Neverkusen’ tag against former boss Mourinho

When Bayer Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso takes on Jose Mourinho’s Roma on Thursday, he will face not only his former mentor, but the man who predicted his future coaching success.

Alonso played 151 games under Mourinho at Real Madrid from 2010 to 2013, winning several titles before the Portuguese returned to Chelsea.

Asked in 2019 about which of his former players could make a successful transition to coaching, Mourinho, who started his management career working with youngsters in the late 1980s, gave a clear answer.

“I would say Xabi Alonso,” Mourinho told a Top Eleven conference.

“He grew up with a father who was a player and a manager. Then he became a player; of course much better than I was.

“Then he became a player, a top player, his position on the pitch and his knowledge of the game (was) very high.

“He was coached by (Pep) Guardiola at Bayern, by myself at Real Madrid, by (Carlo) Ancelotti at Real Madrid, by (Rafael) Benitez at Liverpool.

“I think if you put all of this together, I think Xabi has the conditions to be a very good coach.

“Despite Mourinho’s predictions coming true, it is unlikely he forecast such a crucial meeting with his former protege would come around so soon.

‘Neverkusen’ no more?

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Alonso’s mind for the game was sharpened early, growing up on the same San Sebastian street as close friend and current Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta.

The two played against each other on local beaches and for Antiguoko, a former feeder club of La Liga team Real Sociedad, while dreaming of hitting the footballing big time.

After retiring in 2017, Alonso took over as a youth coach at Real Madrid, before moving back to his home town to manage the Real Sociedad reserves.

Since his appointment as Leverkusen manager in October, Alonso has lifted the side out of the relegation spots and into the European placings.

In this time only Bayern Munich (47) and Borussia Dortmund (46) have managed to pick up more points than the 43 Leverkusen have.

In Europe, Leverkusen’s elimination from the Champions League meant a shot at Europa League glory instead, with Alonso piloting the team past Monaco, Ferencvaros and Union Saint-Gilloise.

The game is Leverkusen’s biggest match on the European stage since the 2002 Champions League final defeat by a Zinedine Zidane-inspired Real Madrid.

Leverkusen’s 2-1 loss in Glasgow, along with their German Cup final defeat by Schalke that year and finishing second by one point in the Bundesliga after blowing a four-point lead with three games to play, cemented the side’s ‘Neverkusen’ nickname.

The club have never won a German league title, but have finished second five times, four of which came between 1997 and 2002.

Leverkusen’s sparse trophy cabinet, boasting only the 1987-88 UEFA Cup and 1992-93 German Cup, is in stark contrast with Alonso’s rich haul of silverware.

Alonso won Champions League titles with Liverpool and Real Madrid, along with league and cup titles in Germany, Spain and England.

At international level, Alonso won two European Championships with Spain, as well as the 2010 World Cup.

Almost a year after taking Roma to a Europa Conference League title in his first season in the Eternal City, Mourinho could rectify a slide in the league by winning a Europa League title.

Winless in four, Roma have dropped from fourth to seventh and are now five points outside of the Champions League spots.

Unlike Mourinho’s stuttering Roma, Alonso has Leverkusen firing, with the German side going 14 games unbeaten before a surprise 2-1 home loss to derby rivals Cologne on Friday.

After the loss, Alonso said his side would “hopefully prepare better” for the crucial away match on Thursday.

Leverkusen are unbeaten in their last nine away fixtures in all competitions and Alonso said he wanted his side to make the most of the rare opportunity.

“For the team and the club, it will be very nice,” Alonso said.

“To be in the semi-finals in Europe has not happened often in the club’s history.

“We want to make it as good as possible.”

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