The continent's most exciting young tactician Xabi Alonso is set to face his former taskmaster Jose Mourinho when Bayer Leverkusen meet AS Roma in the UEFA Europa League last four.
It's a classic case of student against master with the Spanish tactician in charge of Leverkusen ready to test himself against the Portuguese coaching mastermind who has overseen some of the game's most memorable triumphs.
A European semi-final seems an apt stage for the reunion of two highly decorated figures who once shared a dressing room at Real Madrid. Alonso featured in 151 games in all competitions under Mourinho in the Spanish capital between 2010 and 2013, with the pair winning La Liga, Copa del Rey and Spanish Super Cup honours together.
Watch: Jose Mourinho vs. Xabi Alonso - master vs. apprentice
In some ways, Mourinho - a UEFA Champions League winner with both Inter Milan and Porto - saw this coming. "I would say Xabi Alonso: his father was also a coach, so he grew up in a similar way to me," the current Roma boss once replied when asked which of his players he thought would go on to become a successful coach.
"He grew up with a father who was a player and a manager. Then he became a player; a much better [player] than I was, of course. He became a top player: his position on the pitch [meant] his knowledge of the game [was] very high.
“He played in Spain, in England and in Germany. He was coached by [Pep] Guardiola at Bayern [Munich], by myself at Real Madrid by [Carlo] Ancelotti at Madrid, by [Rafa] Benitez at Liverpool. If you put all that together, I think Xabi has all the conditions to be a very good coach.”
Indeed, with just over 30 games behind him in his Leverkusen managerial career following a stint at the Real Socieadad B helm, Alonso is beginning to take flight. Arriving at the Werkself with the club in 17th position in the Bundesliga standings last October, the former Spain midfielder took on an exciting squad in need of a spark and quickly got to work.
An early run of six games without a win taught Alonso much, as did another early January/February blip when things appeared to have taken an upturn either side of the World Cup.
Yet things have since clicked. Not unlike Mourinho's Real Madrid, Alonso's Leverkusen are now a counter-attacking force to be reckoned with. Players like Florian Wirtz and the ultra-fast Jeremie Frimpong and Moussa Diaby have helped Leverkusen take some memorable scalps in recent times.
Watch: How Xabi Alonso has improved Bayer Leverkusen
Enjoying a 14-match unbeaten streak in all competitions ahead of their weekend defeat against Cologne, Alonso's side have had victories against Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig as well as putting paid to the likes of AS Monaco en-route the to the Europa League semis. From the depths of the Bundesliga relegation zone, Leverkusen rose to sixth in the domestic standings - and are on course to emulate Eintracht Frankfurt’s Europa League success from a year ago.
"I've learned from each coach," Alonso explained recently.
"I've lived through good and bad moments (with each coach). I tried to understand why they made the decisions they did so that I could start to build my own vision as a coach and a manager. Later, after taking the best piece from each one, you need to build your own personality and style and not just copy and paste. It's about being authentic."
While at Bayern, Alonso won three Bundesliga titles and a DFB Cup playing in the heart of Guardiola's midfield. Twice a Champions League winner - first at Benitez's Liverpool, then with Ancelotti at Real Madrid - the Basque has high praise for all of his former coaches. He admits, though, that Mourinho was a bit special.
"The players believe in him - you want to play and to fight on the pitch for him," the 41-year-old said while at Real Madrid. "As far as I have had the chance to work with different coaches, Jose has something a bit different. The way he transmits and communicates with the players is different, as is the way he empathises with us."
The pair are certain to display mutual admiration for one another prior to kick-off in the semi-final first leg in Italy on 11 May and in the return at the BayArena a week later. Focus will quickly shift, however, to each trying to outdo the other once the on-field action commences.
With fewer than 150 games under his belt as a coach, Alonso has some way to go before reaching the 1,000-plus games that Mourinho has amassed in the managerial hot seat.
Just as he did as a player at Liverpool, however, the highly-decorated midfielder is looking forward to doing battle with the ex-Chelsea supremo once more. "Those first games against Mourinho were like these super battles," Alonso explained of the Premier League teams' meetings.
"We beat them in the Champions League semi-final and the following year in the FA Cup semi-final and then the year after that in the Champions League semis again. It was like every year we were meant to play against each other at least four times. I loved those games."
Back to the present day and a first major European semi-final as coach of Leverkusen will be a valuable experience for Alonso. That's true no matter no matter the outcome against Mourinho’s Roma, who won the UEFA Conference League last year. "I love it - I'm really enjoying it," Alonso once told Sky Sports on managing.
"In football you have to have intuition, that understanding and that knowledge. Not just about the data and the stats - which is so important - you also need to have the man-management side. You need to deal with the [player as a] person, to deal with the team in good and difficult moments. That's why it's so complicated, but it's so beautiful at the same time."
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