Keita keeps Lazio’s Europa hopes ticking over

Milan (AFP) – Senegal striker Keita Balde came off the bench to hit a late winner in a 2-1 defeat of Empoli that boosted Lazio’s Europa League hopes on Saturday.

Lazio remain in fifth place at 16 points behind Juventus, who saw Paulo Dybala hit a brace in a 4-1 win over former club Palermo on Friday to stretch the Turin giants’ Serie A lead over Roma to 10 points.

Roma, in second, can restore their seven-point deficit with a win at home to Torino on Monday. Fellow title challengers Napoli, two points further off the pace, sit third before visiting Chievo on Sunday.

Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio are one of several sides looking to secure at least a top-five finish and an automatic place in the Europa League.

But the capital side were under pressure to keep pace after unheralded Atalanta, in fourth, maintained their purple patch with a 1-0 home win over struggling Crotone.

And Empoli were in no mood for giving up their fight to stay away from the relegation zone. 

Giovanni Martusciello’s side are a notoriously tough nut to crack at their Castellani stadium, which almost saw a candidate for goal of the season when Manuel Pucciarelli’s volley edged just over Thomas Strakosha’s crossbar.

At the other end, Lazio striker Ciro Immobile stung Lukasz Skorupski’s gloves and saw an angled drive finger-tipped round the base of the upright.

When sent clear on a through ball, Felipe Anderson scuffed his finish with the goal at his mercy. 

Skorupski had to perform heroics to keep out Marco Parolo’s daring shot from distance, then produced a great one-handed save on an Immobile cutback from the by-line as Anderson lurked in front of goal.

It took until halfway through the second period for the deadlock to be broken, and Rade Krunic had the home fans in raptures with a 25-yard drive whose swerve in flight gave a diving Strakosha no chance. 

But their joy was short-lived. Anderson’s cross was deflected and Immobile, spotting the opportunity, held off his maker on the edge of the box to expertly poke the ball past Skorupski.

Balde, recently targeted by hardline ‘ultra’ fans, replaced Milinkovic-Savic just before the hour but needed a slice of luck to clinch Lazio’s 80th minute winner.

A through ball by Anderson came off an Empoli body and Keita pounced to fire a deflected volley past Skorupski from eight yards.

Earlier, Atalanta made it three wins on the trot to maintain their dream season and push for a place in Europe next year.

Andrea Conti hit a 48th minute winner for Gian Piero Gasperini’s men under the watchful eyes of scouts from Chelsea, who according to reports in Italy will “make a serious” offer for the right-back next summer.

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