FC Porto came from behind to beat Lazio 2-1 at the Estádio Do Dragão, earning a narrow advantage in the UEFA Europa League Round of 16. Mattia Zaccagni gave the Italian club the lead after a well worked corner routine before Dragons began to dominate proceedings.
Sérgio Conceição’s side equalized before half time after Toni Martínez converted João Mário’s cross, the same pair on hand to produce the winning goal in the 49th minute. Conceição will now prepare his side for the return leg in Rome where he won six trophies with Lazio between 1999 and 2004.
With much talk of the relative strength of the Portuguese league following the heavy defeat of champions Sporting to Manchester City on Tuesday, it was interesting to see how representatives from two of Europe’s top six leagues would measure up against each other. Given that football is such a global phenomenon of a sport, different sports-related stats pages, even those that usually cater to bringing fans NFL stats, usually keep tabs on special indexes to measure out the quality and power of the top European football leagues.
It was a cagey opening with both goalkeepers untroubled and virtual spectators. That all changed in the 23rd minute when Lazio took the lead.
It was a clever short corner routine that caught Porto asleep. Luis Alberto drilled the ball into the 6-yard box where Mattia Zaccagni was on hand to produce a deft finish past Diogo Costa.
The Dragons responded well and began to create opportunities. Adam Marusic blocked Toni Martínez’s shot with João Mário firing the rebound over the bar.
Fábio Vieira delivered a delicious through ball to Pepê Aquino, the Brazilian winger chipping the ball over Thomas Strakosha with Luis Felipe retreating to clear the ball off the line.
Martínez headed Otávio’s cross wide before Lazio briefly threatened at the other end, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic making space and forcing a save from Costa.
Porto wouldn’t be denied and deservedly equalized in the 37th minute. João Mário’s cross picked out Toni Martínez, the Spanish striker producing a pinpoint header that gave Strakosha no chance.
Half time switches
Sérgio Conceição made two changes at the break with Marko Grujic and Fábio Vieira making way for Vitinha and Galeno.
Both substitutes were immediately involved as Vitinha shot over the bar and Galeno combined with Martínez who forced a save from Strakosha.
And Porto grabbed the lead in the 49th minutes from a familiar combination as Toni Martínez swept in João Mário’s cross with a fine right-footed finish.
Galeno was looking eager to make his mark down the left wing, going on a driving run and finding Aquino who shot high and wide. Mateus Uribe headed Vitinha’s corner over the bar as Lazio were looking second best.
Maurizio Sarri’s side had to wait until the 68th minute to create their next chance as Milinkovic-Savic dragged Felipe Anderson’s cross wide.
Martínez received a standing ovation as he made way for Evanilson, the Brazilian shooting over the bar following a quick free kick.
Lazio huff and puff
Mattia Zaccagni was booked in the 78th minute which meant a suspension for the second leg. He tried to make amends with a shot that was tipped wide by Costa.
Sarri made a triple switch with Toma Basic, Jovane Cabral and Raul Moro Prescoli entering the fray. The closest they came to equalizing was a Felipe Anderson shot into the side netting, Porto holding on to ensure a draw will be sufficient in the second leg.
Martínez makes his mark
Toni Martínez has been on the outside looking in since his move from Famalicão in October 2020. He has found playing time hard to come by this season with Sérgio Conceição preferring Mehdi Taremi and Evanilson up front.
The Spanish striker got his chance in the Europa League after Conceição made it clear that winning the Primeira Liga is Porto’s priority. Martínez made his rare start count, his movement causing problems for Lazio’s defence and both goals giving Thomas Strakosha no chance.
Youngsters starting to shine
Plenty of Porto’s 2018/19 UEFA Youth League winning side are starting to flourish in Conceição’s team and are key players in Portugal’s U21 side.
Diogo Costa has overtaken Marchesín as first choice goalkeeper with Vitinha and Fábio Vieira forcing their way into the starting XI. The pick of the bunch against Lazio was João Mário.
Starting his career primarily as a winger, Mário has been converted into a right-back where he is starting to show his class on a regular basis. He will receive plaudits for producing both assists, but it was his all round play that was impressive in a position he has made his own.
Immobile badly missed
Ciro Immobile didn’t travel to Portugal due to a high fever. With Vedat Muriqi loaned to Real Mallorca in January, Lazio left themselves short up front and paid the price in Porto.
Pedro and Felipe Anderson took turns as strikers, Mattia Zaccagni dangerous on the left wing and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic regularly occupying advanced positions, but replacing the goal threat provided by Immobile is simply not possible.
The 31-year-old is a scoring machine, netting 23 goals in all competitions this season and Sarri will be desperate to have him back for the second leg in Rome.