Wednesday Jun 20, 2018  
  19/08/2015: Report: Lazio 1-0 Leverkusen
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Lazio will fancy their chances of making the Champions League group stage after a hard-fought and deserved 1-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen at the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday evening in what was a frenetic , pulsating game for the Lazio fan and a thoroughly entertaining spectacle for the neutral.

The stakes were high for both sides coming into this European play-off. Bayer Leverkusen, having made the round of 16 in last season's competition, want to qualify for the competition once again and confirm the belief that they have progressed under their manager Roger Schmidt by qualifying for the competition once again. Lazio's mission was much the same. This was Stefano Pioli's opportunity to do what Vladimir Petkovic and Edy Reja failed to do before him and take Lazio in Europe's leading competition.

Similar ambitions from two teams who go about their business in a similar vein was almost certain to lead to an even affair, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can say not much separates these sides. Reading around the internet, it seems that if this was a boxing match, it would have gone the 12 rounds before being scored in favour of Bayer Leverkusen. Perhaps not a unanimous decision, but definitely a split-decision for the Germans.

It is not a viewpoint I can agree with.

Lazio were dominant in the early stages as they imposed their authority on the game without creating any clear cut chances. Leverkusen were having some joy down the right-hand side as makeshift left-back Senad Lulic was struggling to get to grips with current German international, Karim Bellarabi. The Lazio defence, however, were alert to the danger the Leverkusen winger posed.

Ultimately, what separated Lazio from Leverkusen on the night was the Romans ability to react. Bellarabi got the better of Lulic for 15-20 minutes, but the Bosnian international was soon to apply the pressure on Leverkusen, getting forward and exchanging passes with the attackers, putting crosses into the danger area. When Lars Bender hit the post with a sweetly struck shot midway through the first half, Lazio went up the end and hit their post with Felipe Anderson playing an exquisite ball into the path of Miroslav Klose who came within inches of rounding Bernd Leno and putting Lazio in the lead. In the second half, when Hakan Calhanoglu's shot hit Stefan Kiessling and was correctly - and somewhat remarkably - ruled out for offside, it was not long before Keita Balde Diao went up the other end and fired home the winner. Anything Leverkusen did, Lazio did better - or at least as well as Leverkusen. Lazio had plenty of decent opportunities that sparked no reaction from the Germans; that was the difference.

Refereeing decisions undoubtedly had a huge bearing on the game, and probably had a more negative impact on Lazio than Leverkusen. In short, Jonas Eriksson was lenient and there were three occasions where the letter of the law could have ended Leverkusen's Champions League hopes right there and then. Left-back Wendell should have seen red before the half-time whistle as leaving his leg high in a challenge with Ogenyi Onazi before cynically body-checking Felipe Anderson should have culminated in two yellows. In the second half, Bernd Leno was lucky to get away with not conceding a penalty as he made his body an obstacle which prevented Keita Balde Diao from passing the ball into an empty net - that was technically a foul and a penalty, even if the Senegalese forward was looking for it.

Later in the game, with Lazio now in the lead, Kyriagos Papadopoulos - the last man - hauled down Keita and only received a yellow. Refereeing decisions could and should have led to a more convincing scoreline in Lazio's favour, but these talking points were muted as Mauricio's accidental studding of Bellarabi's shoulder in a dangerously high challenge was eye-catching, as it was not met with the punishment it deserved. Yes, the Brazilian should have saw red for that, but it should be noted that had a penalty been awarded at the other end, there would have been no need for such a reckless tackle from the centre-back.

Leverkusen were dangerous and caused us problems and we should take nothing away from their performance, however, Lazio deserve more credit for the result than they will receive. One of the obvious concerns coming into the game was Leverkusen's ability on set-plays considering Lazio's penchant for committing fouls in dangerous areas. Not only did Lazio avoid committing fouls in dangerous areas on the night, but our organisation on free-kicks and corners was almost flawless, forcing Leverkusen into trying to perfect ball which more often than not translated into passes to Etrit Berisha.

Stefano Pioli deserves credit as his substitutions changed the game. Keita for Klose may have been enforced as the German suffered a muscle injury which will almost certainly rule him out of the return leg, but Pioli had spent much of the build-up testing options such as Ricardo Kishna and the Primavera's Alessandro Rossi. In the end, he went for Keita and it paid dividends - a gutsy call, given reports that the 20 year-old wants out of Lazio. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic for Onazi was a curious decision given Marco Parolo's sub-par performance in the middle, but having been made early in the second half, it gave us some fresh legs to kick on and get that winner.

It was far from vintage Lazio, but it was somewhere close to our best. We can lament on the performances of Antonio Candreva or Felipe Anderson and focus on some misplaced passes in the centre of the park, but we need to keep in mind that this was Leverkusen, not Livorno. They had the quality to put us under pressure and force us into errors, and they had enough intelligence and experience to avoid making a very good football team look much better than they are.

Lazio's progression into the group stages of the Champions League is far from certain, but on this evidence, you would think us very capable of getting a goal in the BayArena which heaps pressure on the Germans. It would be disappointing to miss out from here, but it will take a second performance of this standard to put us back in the big time. It's been 2808 days since our last Champions League game. Not that anyone's counting...

Forza Lazio!

Player Ratings: Berisha (6.0), Basta (6.0), de Vrij (6.0), Mauricio (6.5), Lulic (6.0), Parolo (5.5), Biglia (6.0), Onazi (6.5), Felipe Anderson (6.5), Miroslav Klose (6.5), Antonio Candreva (5.5). Keita Balde Diao (7.0), Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (5.5), Gentiletti (n/a).
Author: Cathal Mullan
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