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Lazio hero Keita close to fulfilling dream

Young Lazio forward Keita moved a step closer to fulfilling his UEFA Champions League ambition after coming off the bench to get the only goal against Leverkusen in Rome.

Keita is mobbed after his late clincher against Leverkusen
Keita is mobbed after his late clincher against Leverkusen ©Getty Images

Keita may have taken the long road to the UEFA Champions League but after inspiring Lazio to Tuesday's 1-0 play-off first-leg victory over Leverkusen, he is finally on the brink of making it.

Had destiny so desired, Keita might have celebrated winning European football's ultimate club prize in Berlin last May yet the forward – born in Catalonia to Senegalese parents – chose a different route, turning his back on Barcelona in 2011 and instead seeking his fortune with Lazio.

The 20-year-old made an immediate impression in Rome, scoring on his full Serie A debut against Parma in November 2013. His impact on his first UEFA Champions League outing was equally emphatic, with his 77th-minute goal at the Stadio Olimpico giving the Biancocelesti an edge to take to Germany next Wednesday. It also earned the second-half substitute the morning headlines.

"This goal's important for the team and for the fans," Keita said, magnanimously. "We wanted to give something for the people here to celebrate, something for us to celebrate too." He was nonetheless made to wait, with Lazio coach Stefano Pioli initially leaving the youngster on the bench. The No14 benefited from Miroslav Klose's injury setback to come on after half-time – and wasted no time showing how hungry he was.

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"All my players need to respond like Keita did tonight," Pioli said of a prospect about to begin his third Serie A campaign. "They've got to show me they want to be out there playing. He showed me he's ready and I'm delighted he scored."

Keita laps up the acclaim after his goal
Keita laps up the acclaim after his goal©AFP/Getty Images

Keita certainly performed. His pace and excellent close control were a thorn in the side of the Leverkusen rearguard. Jonathan Tah, the Leverkusen defender one year his junior, was tested to the full and after seeing his elusive adversary scoop one over and have another effort blocked by goalkeeper Bernd Leno, the Bayer No4 was undone on Keita's next excursion.

Not many players will be able to match Tah for physical strength but Keita somehow managed to hold him off, with a combination of speed and unbound determination seeing him waltz past the centre-back before he kept an uncanny degree of cool to slow his body down and deliver the punishing blow into the far corner of Leno's goal.

If the Lazio fans were ecstatic, Keita soaked it all up in front of the Curva Nord. "It's a big win and we've been waiting a long time for this," added Keita. "It's not over yet though. We've got one more game to play and we've got to show the same determination when we take to the field at their place."

With Klose likely to miss out at the BayArena with what could be a serious calf problem, Keita's UEFA Champions League destiny could be in his own hands next week. He might have got there with Barcelona. However, Keita wanted to do it a different way – and he is doing it with Lazio.