Xabi Alonso takes on Mourinho after transforming Leverkusen

Leverkusen's head coach Xabi Alonso gestures during the German Bundesliga soccer match between VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer 04 Leverkusen in Wolfsburg, Germany, Sunday, April 16, 2023. (Swen Pfoertner/dpa via AP)
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DUESSELDORF, Germany (AP) — A decade after he last played under José Mourinho at Real Madrid, Xabi Alonso takes on his old boss as a coach.

A win over Mourinho’s Roma in their Europa League semifinal first leg in Italy Thursday would further boost Alonso’s growing reputation following a remarkable turnaround in Bayer Leverkusen’s fortunes this season.

Leverkusen hasn’t got this far in Europe since losing the 2002 Champions League final to a Madrid side led by Zinedine Zidane. That’s one of several near misses that earned the club its “Neverkusen” nickname in Germany during the 30 years since its last trophy.

A two-time Champions League winner as a player, Alonso played for Mourinho at Madrid from 2010 through 2013, winning the Spanish league and cup.

Alonso later recalled how he was instantly convinced by Mourinho’s ability when the Portuguese coach took over at Madrid.

“I remember the first meeting with Mourinho. He came from Inter (Milan), we came from the World Cup that we won in South Africa (with Spain) and we met in Los Angeles. The first meeting, five minutes, you already know why he’s there and why he’s so good,” Alonso said in a 2016 interview with British broadcaster Sky Sports.

Mourinho tipped Alonso as a potential coach of the future in a 2019 interview to promote the Top Eleven video game.

“His father was a manager, so he grew up similar to me. He was born with a father-player, he grew up with a father-manager, then he became a player, of course much better than I was,” Mourinho said, highlighting Alonso’s experience playing for coaches like Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benítez.

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

Alonso took over in October with Leverkusen in the relegation zone and has now hauled it up to sixth in Germany. Previous coach Gerardo Seoane had qualified the club for the Champions League the season before, but results then slumped.

There were doubts when Alonso won one of his first seven games in a tough schedule. However, he built momentum after the World Cup and turned the young squad known for its fast players into a powerhouse in both Germany and the Europa League. Highlights include a come-from-behind win over Monaco on penalties and a 2-1 win over Bayern Munich swiftly followed by Bayern firing coach Julian Nagelsmann.

Leverkusen’s 14-game unbeaten run ended Friday in a 2-1 loss to local rival Cologne, but Mourinho’s Roma is coming off its own bruising 2-0 loss to Inter. For both teams, winning the Europa League is their best chance of playing Champions League games next season.

Many of Leverkusen’s top players are still improving, with the pace on the wings of 23-year-old Moussa Diaby and 22-year-old Jeremie Frimpong making the team a threat on the counterattack, while German midfielder Florian Wirtz, 20, and Ecuadorian defender Piero Hincapié, 21, also seem on course for bright futures.