Huub Stevens may believe S.S. Lazio are "a class above" but the Group G table tells a different story as his FC Salzburg team need a point to secure progress and compound their opponents' misery.
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A 100 per cent start has left FC Salzburg needing just a point from their last two Group G games to guarantee progress to the round of 32 – but Huub Stevens's side are not looking beyond Wednesday's meeting with struggling S.S. Lazio.
'In our hands'
Even the most optimistic Salzburg fan would have been hard-pressed to paint this rosy a picture when the UEFA Europa League group stage draw was made in August. Four wins in as many matches and the Austrian team are on the verge of extending the campaign into the new year. "It's in our hands," said striker Alexander Zickler. "It would be great if we could [qualify] against Lazio in front of our fans."
With Marc Janko – author of Salzburg's stoppage-time winner in September's reverse fixture – labouring to overcome a groin problem, the onus could be on Zickler to lead the line at the Stadion Salzburg. Their impressive European form, however, has been built on the foundations of a solid back line. Ever since Lazio's Pasquale Foggia scored against them in Rome, Stevens's men have not conceded in 301 minutes of group-stage action. That defensive muscle flexed again on Sunday when they held joint Austrian Bundesliga leaders SK Rapid Wien to a 0-0 draw. "I'd be more than happy with the same result on Wednesday," said Zickler, though Stevens warned: "We're in for a tough time against Lazio if we play like that."
It is a measure of Salzburg's self-belief that they approach the game oozing confidence, despite Stevens's insistence Lazio are "a class above". The Biancocelesti's form this season suggests otherwise. Saturday's goalless home draw with Bologna FC was their seventh successive outing without a win, a sequence that has dragged the injury-hit side down to 15th in Serie A. Davide Ballardini's charges badly need a victory in Austria to keep hopes of a last-32 place alive. "I'm not surprised that Salzburg are top of this group; they have played the best football so far," said the Lazio coach. "I learned from our first match that they are fighters and they never surrender."
Should Salzburg, who may also be missing defensive midfielder Franz Schiemer with a thigh tear, fail to pick up a point, they can put it right at Villarreal CF on Matchday 6. Lazio, shorn of Sebastiano Siviglia, Albano Bizzarri, Matuzalem, Ousmane Dabo and Julio Cruz, do not have that luxury. "I have 19 players here who are determined to win because we know that this might be our last chance in Europe this season," added Ballardini. "We'll do everything to make sure that it isn't."