At the pre-match press conference at the Ullevi Stadium there was time to reminisce. In somewhat of a surprise, Xabi Alonso was asked about his first visit to Gothenburg by a member of the local media: In the summer of 1995, he took part in a renowned international youth tournament in the city, the Gothia Cup, as a 13-year-old with Real Sociedad. "We travelled from San Sebastian on a coach and it took two days," Alonso recalled.
The Swedish journalist presented the Werkself head coach with a team photo from back then. One row in front of Alonso: the current Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta. The youth team Antiguoko KE, including Alonso and Arteta, reached the final where they lost to the Swedish club IF Brommapojkarna. In spite of the defeat, it remained a really special match for Alonso, who was later voted player of the tournament: "It was my first match in a big stadium. Memories of the week here are fantastic. I'm glad to be back."
This time Alonso has come to Gothenburg with a clear target as the Werkself head coach. The aim is to seal winning Group H in the UEFA Europa League in the game against Häcken. A draw would be enough, "but we come here to win," declared Alonso.
While Häcken remain without a point in the Europa League, the record for the Werkself is perfect with four wins from four games to date. "We won't rest at all, there's no time for that," said Alonso looking to the forthcoming seven games in 21 days after Christmas. "We have a game to play and have prepared as best as we can and we will be fully focused."
The prevailing conditions for this fifth group match are rather unusual for the Werkself players: Heavy snow and temperatures of minus 8 degrees await the Bundesliga league leaders and their 900 travelling fans.
Nathan Tella, also on the top table at the press conference, has been in the starting XI for all the previous Europa League games this season. The Nigeria international: "Games and minutes give me lots of confidence. I'm very much looking forward to tomorrow's match." On his first months in Leverkusen, the winger said: "I’m at an outstanding club, have a great coach and a brilliant team around me – they all support me in being able to produce my best performance levels. Now it's about continuing to develop as best as I can in all areas."
Like Tella, his teammate Matej Kovar has also started every European game this season. Alonso said the Czech keeper will be in goal for the second game against Häcken as the Werkself look to secure top spot with a fifth win in the fifth and penultimate group match, and to seal progress to the Round of 16 with a game to play.
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