UEFA Europa Conference League Round of 16 2nd Leg – LASK v Slavia Praha

NÖ Arena, St. Pölten

LASK’s European journey reached its final destination on Thursday, as a spirited performance ultimately came to life too late against Slavia Prague. Philipp Wiesinger’s brace looked like a consolation for LASK, as the Czech champions scored three times to control the tie, before goals from Andreas Gruber and Alexander Schmidt turned the scoreline in the Linzers’ favour, but couldn’t change the overall outcome.

Andi Wieland’s team prepared for the second leg of this tough tie by raising hopes for a game that would go down in the club’s history as “the miracle in St. Pölten” if the three goal deficit could be overturned against the odds. There were reasons to believe ahead of kick off; LASK’s latest Bundesliga game ended in a 6-0 demolition to give the forwards the perfect preparation, and memories didn’t have to be that long to remember big European home wins against the likes of HJK Helsinki, FK Vojvodina, Sporting CP and PSV Eindhoven.

Doing it again from 4-1 down against Slavia Prague would be the next huge challenge, and it would be played out in the unfamiliar surroundings of St. Pölten’s NÖ Arena, 130km from Linz, with the Linzerstadion still being rebuilt. Belgian referee Lawrence Visser got the game underway, as the LASK players in their all white shirts looked to find an early foothold in the tie. The Slavia supporters fancied their chances of the win after a strong first game, and they travelled in good numbers, yet it was the home fans making the most noise in the early stages.

The first good break came down the left as Husein Balic forced the visiting keeper into a dive from an angled shot five minutes in, but Slavia soon grew into the game and attempted to stretch the LASK centre backs Yannis Letard and Philipp Wiesinger. The defence repelled the attacks without too much trouble, until Yira Sor chipped a dangerous cross in from the left which was chested over by Alexander Bah half way through the first 45.

LASK used that as a wake-up call to break forward, but with the Slavia keeper out of his area and alert to the danger, a counter attack dealt a hammer blow to the hopes of a miracle. Just seconds after losing the ball, Ondrej Lingr cut back from the byline and Peter Olayinka was in position to curl home a goal of real quality into the top corner.

The aggregate score was now an imposing 5-1 to the visitors from Prague, and had it not been for some outstanding last ditch defending from Marvin Potzmann, it would have been worse soon after. Undeterred, LASK fought back on the night; a knuckle-ball free kick came back off the Slavia post, where Philipp Wiesinger battled against the bumpy turf to force the rebound into the back of the net! Game on?

Before the stadium announcement of the equaliser was complete, Yira Sor had broken away at lightning speed and teed-up Alexander Bah to restore Slavia’s lead. Another setback in an uphill struggle. Once that breathless spell was over, there was one final twist to the first half, as Slavia’s Aiham Ousou picked up a second caution for a cynical trip and received his marching orders. A tiny glimmer of hope for the second half, perhaps.

Keito Nakamura and Alexander Schmidt came on at the interval in an attempt to breathe new life into the LASK attack, but it was the returning Sascha Horvath who had the first shot, before a Nakamura effort looped just off target ten minutes after the restart.

As in the first leg, there was no way to contain the sheer pace of Slavia’s Sor at the other end, who ran clear on his own to slot in and make it 3-1 to Slavia on the night just after the hour mark. LASK were spending more and more time in the opposing half, but with space hard to come by, Wiesinger simply fired through a crowd from outside the box to reduce the arrears to 3-2 (7-3) with 15 minutes to play!

Srdjan Plavsic was then shown a late red card as Slavia incredibly went down to nine men, and when Andreas Gruber fired in from the deflected free kick which followed, the mood changed. Suddenly Schmidt tucked away a loose ball in the box to turn the game in LASK’s favour with just a few minutes to play, the hosts now led on the night heading into stoppage time!

The final whistle ultimately came too soon for the valiant Linzers, and brought to an end a European campaign for LASK which began in Serbia, and saw the Upper Austrians play in Finland, Israel, Armenia and the Czech Republic, as well as using two “borrowed” homes in Austria. Another run to be proud of, another fantastic home win over 90 minutes to enjoy in the future, but for now, there were mixed feelings of pride and disappointment. The Europa Conference Dream was over for 2022, after a 4-3 win, but a 7-5 aggregate defeat.

By Tom Middler from The Other Bundesliga (@OtherBundesliga)

The line-ups:        

LASK: Schlager; Letard (Sako, 57’), Wiesinger, Renner, Michorl (Hong, 79’), Balic (Gruber, 72’), Potzmann, Holland, Goiginger (Nakamura, 45’), Flecker (Schmidt, 45’), Horvath

Subs: Lawal, Gebauer, Raguz, Twardzik, Luckeneder, Boller, Maresic

Goals: Wiesinger (36’, 76’), Gruber (88’), Schmidt (89’)                            

SK Slavia Praha: Mandous; Holes, Ousou, Bah, Talovierov, Olayinka (Kudela, 84’), Plavsic, Sor, Schranz (Tecl, 80’), Traore, Lingr (Masopust, 77’)

Subs: Kolar, Sirotnik, Madsen, A. Pudil, M. Pudil

Goals: Olayinka (24’), Bah (37’), Sor (64’)