Leverkusen booked their group stage spot with a 3-0 victory over Lazio on Wednesday, but Bernd Leno and Roberto Hilbert admitted it was not as easy as it looked.
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- Leverkusen overturn 1-0 first-leg defeat with 3-0 home win
- Lazio's Mauricio dismissed for second yellow card after 68 minutes
- Lazio coach Stefano Pioli admits "Leverkusen deserved to win"
- Group stage draw in Monaco today at 17.45CET
On the face of it, Leverkusen's 3-0 victory over Lazio in their UEFA Champions League play-off second leg may sound like a one-sided affair.
Goals from Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Admir Mehmedi and Karim Bellarabi earned the German side a place in the group stage of Europe's premier club competition for the tenth time in their history on Wednesday. Yet the overriding emotion among the Leverkusen players at the final whistle, despite the emphatic nature of the result, was one of relief.
"A huge weight has fallen from our shoulders today," said goalkeeper Bernd Leno, who had to be at his best to thwart Felipe Anderson and Keita, and prevent Lazio doubling their 1-0 advantage after the first leg. "We desperately wanted to play on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings again. Now we're through [to the group stage] and I think we thoroughly deserve it."
Leno's sentiments were echoed by team-mate Roberto Hilbert, though he was keen to stress that the 3-0 scoreline was not a true reflection of Wednesday's contest. "It was a very, very tense match against a very, very good team," he said. "We wanted to play our game for the whole 90 minutes and score at the right times – thankfully we managed to do that."
They certainly did. Çalhanoğlu, a thorn in the visitors' side at the BayArena, broke the deadlock five minutes before the interval after the Werkself had struggled to find a way through a resolute Lazio defence for the majority of the first 45 minutes – notwithstanding a Stefan Kiessling header that crashed off the woodwork midway through the half.
Buoyed by Çalhanoğlu's opener, Roger Schmidt's side emerged for the second period with renewed vigour. It took just three minutes for them to establish an aggregate lead for the first time in the tie courtesy of Mehmedi, who showed great strength to shrug off Mauricio before firing high into the roof of the net.
Things went from bad to worse for the Brazilian centre-back when he was shown a second yellow card for a needless foul on Kiessling, but a Lazio goal at that stage would have turned the tie on its head. "Even when they went down to ten men we knew they have a lot of experienced players," said Leno. "All it takes is one or two chances at the wrong end and they could have scored."
Thankfully from Leverkusen's perspective, the visitors failed to seriously trouble Leno's goal following Mauricio's dismissal. Instead, Bellarabi's 88th-minute goal rubberstamped their ticket in Thursday's group stage draw.
"We're looking forward to it," said Leno, who is hoping to be drawn alongside Real Madrid. "Personally, I'd love to play at the Santiago Bernabéu. But to play against some of the other teams in the draw would also be very special."