[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Champions League is the highest pedigree of club football in the world game, with the financial rewards that come from playing in Europe’s top tournament substantial.
As such, for the sides that enter the final qualifying round ahead of the group stage, the difference between progression and elimination has the potential to play a major role in shaping a club’s short-to-medium term future.
Of this year’s fixtures, Lazio’s clash with Bayer Leverkusen has pitted two teams that are more than good enough to compete in the group stages, but cruelly one will be sent to the Europa League.
The first leg at the Stadio Olimpico last night gave the Italians a slender 1-0 lead to take to Germany, with substitute Keita Baldé Diao’s individual effort separating the sides.
Here are some key themes that dominated the game and will play a role in next week’s return at the BayArena.
Leverkusen’s midfield pressing stifles Lazio equivalents
Roger Schmidt’s men will return home feeling slightly aggrieved not to get anything from the game, especially as the visiting midfield dominated the 50-50 clashes.
In German international pairing Christoph Kramer and Lars Bender, Leverkusen have a combative, technically able and impressive central midfield pairing, which outplayed Lucas Biglia and company all night.
The pressing game of the Bundesliga side’s midfield forced Lazio to change their approach, as interceptions and turnovers in the first-half had Stefano Pioli’s men abandon their central passing game and look to go wider and longer in their distribution.
If Bender and Kramer can dominate the boiler room next week at home, it should mean that Leverkusen have the bulk of possession with which to chase the necessary goals.
Lazio’s pre-season threatens Champions League place
In recent years Serie A sides have not fared well in Champions League qualification games, with a number being knocked out before even reaching the group stages.
This must be accredited in part to the later domestic start for Italian teams, with most of the rest of Europe already back to league duties.
Lazio have had a poor pre-season that has included a number of unconvincing friendly performances and defeat in China to Juventus in the Italian Super Cup.
As such, Leverkusen looked sharper and physically superior to the hosts and will be confident of overturning the deficit as a result.
Bellarabi has the beating of Lulić
Leverkusen have no shortage of attacking weaponry at their disposal, but the player that got most joy in the Italian capital was right winger Karim Bellarabi.
While Lazio centre-half pairing Stefan de Vrij and Maurício defended staunchly, the Germans made inroads on the flanks, with Bellarabi in particular creating excellent opportunities.
The home team’s left-back Senad Lulić has attacking ambition at the core of his game but looked suspect against the 25-year-old in one-on-one situations.
Schmidt will urge his men to get the ball to Bellarabi again next week, with the wideman potentially holding the key to unlocking the Lazio defence.
Klose’s time at the game’s pinnacle over
Miroslav Klose has had a distinguished career for both club and country, with the Poland-born striker one of the most feared centre forwards of a generation.
However, now 37, the former Germany international looks to be coming to the end of his time at the top level and as such Lazio would be foolhardy to overly rely on the veteran.
Klose did have a glorious chance to score in the first half, hitting the post after rounding Bernd Leno, but apart from this the striker looked relatively ineffective.
Replaced by Keita at half-time, the Leverkusen defence had their hands full with the sprightly attacker, with Kyriakos Papadopoulos clearly struggling to contain the substitute.
With Klose picking up a hamstring strain and now a doubt for next week, it may well be a blessing in disguise that the Italians will look to start Keita in his place.
Candreva and Anderson can punish Leverkusen on the break
Due to Leverkusen’s midfield dominance, Lazio were at times subjected to prolonged periods of pressure – but hit their opponents well on the counter attack on a number of occasions.
With the speed and skill of attacking midfield pair Felipe Anderson and Antonio Candreva a telling aspect to the team’s offensive play, the hosts had chances to further their advantage when striking quickly from deep.
Along with Keita, the Lazio attacking trident will be charged with getting an away goal at the BayArena next week and with Leverkusen surely set to commit men forward to get back into the tie, the Italians have the personnel and potential opportunity to strike a hammer blow on the break.
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