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A makeshift LASK side deprived of numerous key players beat Armenian champions Alashkert 2-0 at the Wörthersee Stadion on Matchday 4 of the UEFA Europa Conference League and are now guaranteed a place in the knockout stages of the competition. Keito Nakamura rounded off a neat team move to open the scoring on the 12-minute mark and then added another goal three minutes from time to keep LASK level on points with group leaders Maccabi Tel Aviv ahead of their head-to-head meeting in Israel on the next matchday.
LASK went into this game knowing that a win over their Armenian opponents, combined with a victory for Maccabi against HJK Helsinki in the group’s other game, would secure them a top-two finish in Group A with two games to spare. But they would have to do it without the suspended Jan Boller and the injured trio of James Holland, Husein Balic and Dario Maresic, while Lukas Grgic and Mamoudou Karamoko were both unavailable after testing positive for Covid. With so many absentees to contend with, the Linzers opted to deviate from their trusty 3-4-3 formation and instead played with a makeshift back four of Marvin Potzmann, Felix Luckeneder, Rene Renner and Hyun-Seok Hong. The visitors Alashkert, whom they had comfortably beaten 3-0 a fortnight earlier, came into the return fixture as one of only three teams in the competition yet to pick up a point – along with Lincoln Red Imps and Mura – and with the worst defensive record in the group stage (11 goals conceded).
The game was only four minutes old when the hosts created their first clear chance through Christoph Monschein, who capitalised on a bouncing ball to go clean through but saw his low effort blocked by the legs of Alashkert shot-stopper David Yurchenko. The deadlock was broken seven minutes later, however, with Thomas Goiginger, Alexander Schmidt and Monschein all combining to tee up Japanese youngster Nakamura to score his first goal for the LASK senior side. The lead would have been doubled in the 20th minute had Peter Michorl’s thunderbolt from outside the box not been palmed onto the crossbar by Yurchenko.
With LASK’s trademark ferocious pressing forcing Alashkert into frequent possession giveaways, the visitors rarely managed to string together a sequence of passes or venture over the halfway line in the opening half-hour. Wieland’s side instead continued to commit numbers forward and should have had a second goal in the 32nd minute following an intricate passage of play in and around the Alashkert box, only for the totally unmarked Luckeneder to head a Goiginger cross wide from the edge of the six-yard box. Goiginger’s creative prowess was again on full display five minutes before the break when he threaded the ball through to Monschein, though the latter’s attempted chip was kept out by Yurchenko. LASK were almost made to pay for that profligacy when Jose Embalo slotted the ball home at the back post on the stroke of half-time, but the offside flag went up and it was ruled out – a close but correct call.
A beautiful curling free-kick from the right foot of Goiginger seconds after the interval came close to putting LASK two goals to the good, but the set-piece unfortunately struck the frame of the goal, bounced down and then hit the goalkeeper’s leg – all without crossing the line. That was as close as the home side got to extending their advantage in the opening stages of the second period and so Wieland opted to make a double change on the hour mark, bringing on Florian Flecker and Andreas Gruber in place of Horvath and Schmidt respectively. The switches arguably did not have quite the desired effect, however, and for the first time all night Alashkert seemed to have some joy circumventing the first line of pressing – albeit without creating any notable opportunities to draw themselves level.
LASK’s failure to kill off a game in which they had clearly been the superior side set up a tense finish, and Portuguese striker Embalo twice looked to have got in behind the home defence, only for the offside flag to go up on both occasions. Alashkert seemed emboldened by those forays forward but never really looked like they would trouble Alexander Schlager and LASK eventually struck again through Nakamura with three minutes to go to secure an impressive three points – especially in light of the players they were missing – and confirm their place in the knockout stages. They will hope to have a number of those absentees back by the time they visit Tel Aviv in three weeks’ time – in a match that will likely determine who finishes top of the group and goes directly through to the Round of 16.
By Lee Wingate from The Other Bundesliga (@OtherBundesliga)
LASK: Schlager; Potzmann, Luckeneder, Renner, Hong; Goiginger, Michorl, Horvath (Flecker 60‘), Nakamura; Schmidt (Gruber 60‘), Monschein (Letard 86‘)
Subs: Gebauer; Polster
Goals: Nakamura (12‘, 87‘)
Alashkert: Yurchenko; Kryuchkov, Boljevic, Voskanyan, Cameta; Papikyan (Glisic 51‘), Grigoryan, Bezecourt (Milinkovic 60‘); Hovsepyan (Yedigaryan 83‘); Embalo, Mihajlovic (James 60‘)