Dry your eyes Tottenham Hotspur, and re-adjust your sights West Ham United: Xabi Alonso is staying at Bayer Leverkusen. He has confirmed he will be at the Bundesliga team until the end of the next season, which is consistent with his measured approach of building a coaching CV, step by step.
And it’s beginning to look quite the CV. There is a danger in overestimating articulate players, believing they will make natural managers. The coaches’ graveyard is littered with media-friendly ex pros, their glittering playing careers undone by the trials and tribulations of managing an actual dressing room full of footballers less-talented than yourself.
And yet with Alonso it’s hard not to be impressed. He took over in October with Leverkusen in relegation trouble and has guided them to the top seven and being on the brink of the Europa League final.
A former manager in Jose Mourinho stands in his way and Leverkusen are 1-0 down against Roma from the first leg, so it will take something special at the BayArena to outsmart Jose on Thursday.
Whatever, it has been a wonderful transformation at Leverkusen and if they do make the final, they have the opportunity to make history, emulating the 1988 team which won the UEFA Cup, their only previous European trophy. And maybe put to bed the Bayer Never-kusen tag they earned after blowing a potential Bundesliga-DFB Pokal-Champions League treble in 2001-2002.
Xabi Alonso confirmed that he will be staying at the club until at least the end of the 2023-24 season
Alonso can win the club a first European title since 1988 after Leverkusen lost the Champions League final in 2002 to Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid
The former Real Sociedad B boss was of interest to Daniel Levy’s Tottenham
In the run up to Thursday’s match, Alonso confirmed what most had assumed in recent weeks, that, despite the links with Tottenham and West Ham, he will be staying and that he is planning for next season at Leverkusen, the signing of Granit Xhaka being his first major addition. His family is settled in Dusseldorf and there is no rush, it seems, to move.
There is so much superficially to like about Alonso, that is it is hard not to see him in an even more high-profile job soon. And hard not to project that trajectory on to the three biggest clubs of his career in Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Make a success of this in the next few years and the next step could be a huge one.
It’s the little things that impress. The fact that his German remained good enough six years since his three seasons at Bayern that he could go straight into press conferences in the native language.
That he spent three years at his home-town club Real Sociedad, coaching the B team, learning the trade, when there were bigger offers on the table. That he’s finishing off the job he came to do at Leverkusen, rather than cutting and running, Michael Beale style, as soon as his star is in the ascendant.
There is a quiet confidence about those career moves. If he is genuinely good – and the results at Leverkusen suggest he is – then the offers will surely come. He told Sud-deutsche Zeitung, in an in-depth interview, that he chose the Bundesliga for his first major job because he noted during his time at Bayern that clubs there ‘didn’t have a dizzy fit when they gave young coaches a chance.’
He cited Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim and Edin Terzic at Dortmund. There is seriousness about projects in Germany that means you get a decent chance. (Todd Boehly take note).
He worries, like any young coach, describing how he will get up at 2am, not able to sleep, to make plans and work out tactics. ‘Who can sleep peacefully when they know there’s a cable loose somewhere?’ he says, describing his nagging, inquisitive brain.
‘The most important days of your life are your birthday, the day you find your true love and day you discover your passion,’ he said. Football it seems is his and, specifically, coaching. (His passion that is. His true love remains his wife, Nagore, he insists).
Leverkusen take on Jose Mourinho’s Roma on Thursday for a place in the Europa Conference League final
Alonso took the Bundesliga side from relegation contenders to European challengers this term
Alonso is a Basque native, alongside Premier League managers Mikel Arteta and Unai Emery
Alonso’s pedigree is famously rich. One of his first coaches was his father, Periko, the former Barca and Spain midfielder, who took over at Real Sociedad for a short period, having previously coached at San Sebastien and Hercules.
In the weird synchronicity of one location producing a school of talent, he was in a youth team with Mikel Arteta and Andoni Iraola, now coach at Rayo Vallecano but attracting attention from Leeds. With Unai Emery also from this part of the world, it may be time to start talking about a new Basque school of coaching.
Alonso surely though has completed the masters in the trade under the most-exalted professors. As well as growing up with his father’s career, he worked under Rafael Benitez, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola and Vicente del Bosque for his World Cup and Euro wins with Spain.
A 14-game unbeaten run this season has allowed him to move from focusing on getting the defence right to a more possession-dominant style, as you would expect from the lynchpin of that fabulous Spanish midfield.
El Clasico rivalry dominates Spain but Espanyol-Barca sub plot is just as intriguing
Watching the Barca players cut short their title-winning celebrations and sprint for the dressing room at Estadi Cornellà-El Prat, home to Espanyol, on Sunday was a reminder of just how bitter the city feud is between the two clubs.
Home fans had invaded the pitch, incensed by their city rivals enjoying their moment, a 4-2 win that may also condemn Espanyol to relegation, which hardly improved the mood.
Around the world, focus is naturally on the Real Madrid-Barca rivalry as the animus of Spanish football. Yet the Espanyol-Barca sub plot is intriguing. Barcelona is a city dominated by Catalan nationalism, both politically and culturally.
Yet to be at a game of the Royal Sporting Club of the Spanish, to give its full name in English, is to be assailed by Spanish flags and banners of the traditional Spanish symbol of the bull and to see a completely different side to the city.
Espanyol ultras stormed the field of play to confront Barcelona’s players on Sunday night
Barcelona were confirmed LaLiga champions and they were celebrating on the field of play
Some ultras made it down the tunnel and were confronted by a group of Barcelona players
It is the sizeable minority which cherishes its Spanish links and finds its identity in a club originally formed for immigrant Spanish workers who had travelled north in search of work, the grandparents of the Espanyol fans of today.
Opinions have hardened since the 2017 referendum, which saw the Catalan government declare independence (unsuccessfully) from Spain, despite the turnout in the vote being only 43 per cent, with many pro-Spain supporters boycotting the poll because it had been ruled illegal by the Spanish government, while some independent-minded voters were prevented from reaching polling stations by police violence.
Those in the city report a creep of nastiness into the rivalry in recent years and Sunday night’s scenes, which saw some Barca players in the tunnel confronting Espanyol fans, once a line of security was between them, illustrated that.
The upshot is that Espanyol are being investigated and may end up playing their final and potentially crucial home game against Almeria behind closed doors.