This Lazio can only win. Coach Simone Inzaghi made his boys push until the very last minute to make full score in their 4th Europa League group stage match against Nice, and snatched three points at the last assault. A late header by Marco Parolo, served from a corner by Luis Alberto, was deflected by French defender Maxim Le Marchand into his own goal to send the Biancocelesti past Group K with two games in advance.
The Eagles captured their nine win in a row despite recurring to a massive turnover that kept on the bench, among others, Serie A top scorer Ciro Immobile. The Azzurri striker had left the pitch with some muscle pain after his latest domestic league match, and is best kept preserved in view of the upcoming game against Udinese – and moreover, of the in-or-out playoff with Sweden to win a remaining World Cup ticket.
Simone Inzaghi left space to many of his second lines, who got their chance to shine on the European Stage. Defenders Patric and Luiz Felipe partnered with Stefan De Vrij, who wore the captain band for the first time in his Lazio experience. Young star Simone Murgia – who in August gave his team the Italian Supercup with a shocking brace that knocked Juventus down – was deployed at midfield, where the two sides were covered by Jordan Lukaku and Adam Marusic. Felipe Caicedo joined Portuguese Nani on the attacking line.
Nice’s French coach Lucien Favre replied by unexpectedly leaving on the bench Italian wild card Mario Balotelli, and rather counting on the experience of Brazilian defender Dante and Wesley Sneijder from The Netherlands. A team that was on a losing streak lasting five games, the French red-and-blacks (indeed wearing an all-black outfit tonight…) seemed more concerned with avoiding another defeat, rather than posing any threat to Thomas Strakosha’s goal.
Lazio’s Albanian goalkeeper indeed lived a quiet night, except for when he jumped to parry back a 25-metre shot by Wesley Sneijder, which was destined to end past the end line anyway. The Biancocelesti had little more to offer when it came to goal chances: Their Stadio Olimpico fans kept chanting and supporting them from the stands for the full 90 minutes, but the most exciting moment actually came when Balotelli stood up from the bench to warm up, and they could finally loudly boo him. Turbomario ended up playing in the last 10 minutes, and distinguished himself only for a scenic heel pass.
A goalless draw would not have been a bad outcome for either club after all, as they were topping Group K of this Europa League group stage with a reassuring margin over Zulte Waregem and Vitesse. Still, Simone Inzaghi showed all his willingness to capture is 4th win out of four games as he sent in first-string players Senad Lulic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Marco Parolo – for an exhausted Lukaku, whose mighty galloping on the left flank constituted the best news for Lazio’s trainer.
The last change was the one to make the difference – as the Azzurri’s midfielder found himself at the right place on the trajectory of a corner kick by Luis Alberto, when the clock was striking minute 92: His head deflection sent the ball over Nice defender Maxim Le Marchand, who pushed it past his own goalie Walter Benitez. Fair enough for a team that maximized their first real attempt to score, but had kept pushing for the full game time.
With 12 points out of four games, Lazio are now certain to end at the top of Group K regardless of the outcome of their remaining two games: more chances for Inzaghi to play new experiments, and more time to focus on their Serie A endeavors – where Lazio is also performing way above pre-season expectations.
SCORERS: 92′ Le Marchand (o.g.)
LAZIO (3-5-2): Strakosha; Patric, de Vrij, Luiz Felipe; Marusic, Murgia (59′ Lulic), Leiva, Luis Alberto, Lukaku (74′ Parolo); Nani (59′ Milinkovic-Savic), Caicedo. (Vargic, Bastos, Radu, Palombi). Coach: Inzaghi.
NICE (4-4-1-1): Benitez; Souquet, Dante, Le Marchand, Jallet; Walter, Mendy, Koziello (86′ Tameze), Lees-Melou (80′ Balotelli); Sneijder (66′ Lusamba); Plea. (Clementia, Sarr, Burner, Makengo). Coach: Favre.
REFEREE: Gil Manzano (Spain)
NOTES: Yellow Card: Leiva (L); Extra Time: 0′ 1st Half, 3′ 2nd Half