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Bayer Leverkusen Edge Closer To Dublin As Another Record Looms

Xabi Alonso’s rampaging Bayer Leverkusen will have an additional incentive in Thursday’s home second-leg Europa League semi-final against Roma: breaking a 59-year-old European football record. Avoiding defeat against Roma on Thursday will not only mean a trip to Dublin for the Europa League final, it will also extend their unbeaten run to 49 games — the best mark in European football history. A Eusebio-inspired Benfica went on a 48-game unbeaten streak between 1963 and 1965. The record has stood since, but Leverkusen have a golden chance of blowing it out of the water.

Alonso’s side has already overtaken Juventus’ 43-match unbeaten run from 2011 to 2012, which was the best of a team in the top five European leagues.

Leverkusen won 2-0 in Rome last week and could progress to the final even with a one-goal loss, but breaking the record would be yet another outstanding achievement in an already brilliant season.

‘I can tell my grandchildren’

Speaking after Leverkusen equalled Benfica’s record with a 5-1 win at Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday, Leverkusen goalkeeper and captain Lukas Hradecky said pursuit of an unbeaten season gave his side “extra motivation”.

“It’s close,” said Hradecky after the game, explaining “I can tell my granddaughter and grandson about this.”

The Finn was referring to the league season, where Leverkusen have two more games to become the first team to go a Bundesliga campaign without defeat, but Leverkusen are just five matches away from an unbeaten treble.

Even with Alonso forced to watch from the stands due to a yellow card suspension, Leverkusen were not troubled against Frankfurt.

Already crowned Bundesliga champions for the first time back in April, Leverkusen are through to the German Cup final, where they face second-division Kaiserslautern.

Avoiding defeat on Thursday will set up a meeting with either Atalanta or Marseille in the Europa League final in Dublin.

Before the start of the season, Leverkusen had just two major trophies in their history. With the Bundesliga already under their belt, Alonso’s side could more than double their historical trophy haul in the Spaniard’s first full season in charge of a top side.

Former Leverkusen coach and sporting director Rudi Voeller said Thursday the call to hire Alonso was “brave and adventurous”, as well as a “perfect decision”.

Speaking with the Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger, Voeller praised Leverkusen’s “outstanding squad” depth.

“It’s rare in the football business that you not only strengthen in the top positions, but also in the areas behind them. That’s the secret why Bayer is still unbeaten.

“The treble is still possible. But no matter what happens, it’s still an outstanding season.”

Wirtz, Grimaldo to return

Leverkusen have managed to keep their stunning run going despite Alonso deciding to rest players.

Attacking midfielder Florian Wirtz and wing-back Alex Grimaldo were left out of the squad entirely on Sunday.

“They had small complaints in the last few days. We didn’t want to take any risks,” Alonso said.

“They’ll train again from Tuesday.”

Leverkusen scored five despite missing Wirtz, their attacking midfield lynchpin, and assists machine Grimaldo.

Wirtz has four goals and four assists in nine Europa League games this season, including a goal in the first leg in Rome.

“He’s still 21 and has a great future ahead of him,” Alonso said after the Roma game. Wirtz celebrated his 21st birthday at midnight just an hour after the match was over, with the team celebrating with the midfielder in the dressing room.

With close to a full-strength squad and playing at home for the second-last time this season, breaking Benfica’s record on Thursday could be the next step in Wirtz and Leverkusen’s great future.

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