Sunday Mar 26, 2017  
     
 
  27/02/2014: Preview: Ludogorets - Lazio
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Ab out-of-sorts Lazio have landed in Sofia ready to do battle with Ludogorets Razgrad for a place in the Europa League Last 16 and it will be quite a battle. Lazio go into the game looking to overturn a one-goal deficit having performed poorly at the Stadio Olimpico on Thursday. It was a frenetic game with many talking points for Edoardo Reja and the boys to muse over in preparation for the return leg.

I have three pet hates when it comes to football. Firstly, I hate when people talk about 'luck' in any encounter. This is a game where the objective is to put the ball in the back of the net more often than your opponent and it does not matter how it goes in, what matters is that they all count. When your opponent puts the ball in the net more often than you do, generally it is not luck, but rather achieving the objective of the game. 

Secondly, I hate seeing fans blame referees. I just hate it. More often that not, it is just a refusal to accept that your team was not good enough on the night.

Finally, I hate referees who do not understand the handball rule and this pet hate overrides the previous two, which is why the German referee Felix Zwayer will not be on my Christmas card list come December. An unforgivable handball ruling in the ninth minute set the tone for the remainder of the game. Although their captain Svetoslav Dyakov screwed up his best impression of Antonio Candreva, Ludogorets were given a confidence boost with that refereeing decision and Lazio failed to recover. Etrit Berisha was caught off-guard on their goal, Felipe Anderson's penalty was a touch too tame, although you could argue their goalkeeper's antics merited a second attempt and Luis Pedro Cavanda eventually lost the plot and eradicated any advantage gained from Dyakov's sending off.

In my opinion, it all went wrong from the moment the line-up was announced. Reja's team seemed to be 50% attempting to take the competition seriously and 50% giving the more dynamic reserves the chance to shine where they have often taken their chances. I believe if Reja committed 100% to the cause or put 100% faith in the youthful reserves, a different outcome may have been reached. If Lazio want to progress, Reja needs to come up with a more convincing selection.

After all, progression is not out of the question. If Lazio can simply win in the 90 minutes, the worst possible outcome is 30 minutes of extra time. Ludogorets go into the game without their leader in Dyakov and this is uncharted territory for the Bulgarians - they will feel the pressure like never before and they are missing the man who would typically be charged with keeping the team in check.

Nevertheless, tonight is all about Lazio and initial reports suggest another first team and reserve cocktail. Reja is likely to go with a full-strength defence although an injury to Dias at the weekend should see Michaël Ciani get the nod to partner Giuseppe Biava in the centre and that relationship looked far from loving against Sassuolo. Stefan Radu should keep his spot at left-back following his blockbuster on Sunday evening while Abdoulay Konko is a no-brainer at right-back given Cavanda's suspension. Federico Marchetti - who has yet to play in 2014 - is expected to feature behind that quarter. Marchetti has become the poster boy for the Lazio bench recently due to a virus, a hernia, Lotito, split ends, an alien abduction and so on, depending on who you listen to of course. Hopefully an appearance tonight will put an end to some of those stories, but is he the right choice? Berisha has shown himself to be a worthy adversary.

A trio is expected in midfield, which is interesting as that seems to be the area that has had Zio Edy second guessing himself recently. Gonzalez was weak in the second half against Cavanda, was dropped for Ludogorets, reinstated for Sassuolo but looked far from convincing and tonight, a return for Onazi is expected. Ledesma and Biglia should also start.

In attack, Miroslav Klose has looked as energetic as an elephant in a marathon and a well-taken finish against Sassuolo is unlikely to keep him in the side tonight. Helder Postiga is cup-tied, therefore Brayan Perea - who turned 21 yesterday - should get his first start since Lazio's elimination from the Coppa Italia. Antonio Candreva is almost certain to flank him and after a series of underwhelming displays, Senad Lulic looks set to lose his place to Keita Balde Diao.

Edy Reja says Ludogorets are favourites to progress and given our performance levels in recent weeks, the result in the first leg and Edy Reja's record in Europe, it is difficult to argue against that statement. That being said, the bookmakers are giving Ludogorets and Lazio an equal chance of winning the game and that makes perfect sense. At the end of the day, Lazio's progression depends on which Lazio presents itself in Bulgaria. It is in our hands.

Predicted line-ups
Lazio (4-3-3): Marchetti; Konko, Ciani, Biava, Radu; Onazi, Ledesma, Biglia; Candreva, Perea, Keita.
Author: Cathal Mullan
 
 
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