Grahovac and Knasmüllner lead us to victory at LASK
After two home games (and two home wins) to kick off 2021, a trip to Pasching was on the agenda for Bundesliga Matchday 15, as Rapid faced LASK in our first away game of the year. Our team could point to four consecutive league wins against LASK to give us confidence ahead of the game, most recently a 3-0 home victory in October 2020, but there was no disguising the importance of this next clash against another of the Bundesliga's top teams.
With captain Dejan Ljubicic picking up a knock in the midweek win against St. Pölten, Head Coach Didi Kübauer opted to give Srdjan Grahovac the armband as he came into the starting XI; elsewhere in the line-up, Leo Greiml started in the back four, Koya Kitagawa was given a chance to impress on the left of the attack with Marcel Ritzmaier rested, and Ercan Kara once again led the line in front of Christoph Knasmüllner and the in-form Thorsten Schick.
Once the game got started, it was Rapid in their red and blue away shirts who began the brighter. The ball was even in the LASK net in the opening moments, but the flag was up to rule out Knasmüllner's strike for offside (2'). A short set-piece routine from Schick and Dejan Petrovic ended up with a dangerous cross towards the back post; Kara got on the end of it, but his header from the angle was saved by keeper Schlager (11'). Corners were a constant danger for the home defence, and with Schick looking for his next assist after setting up the winner in midweek, he lofted another delivery onto the head of Kara, and this time Schlager was only just able to stop the ball crossing the line (16'). It was a case of third time lucky for Schick though, as a half-cleared corner came back to him on the left flank, and his low ball in was turned home by Grahovac with the help of a deflection (19'). The goal had been coming, and now we had grabbed the lead!
Just seconds later, our advantage was gone however, when Holland's volley from 16 yards was diverted past a helpless Richard Strebinger for 1-1 (21'). The flurry of goals was not finished yet, and when a set-piece delivery was headed across the penalty area by Greiml, Knasmüllner was able to tap in at the back post for his 40th Bundesliga goal and a 2-1 lead (23').
Midway through the first half both teams had a chance to catch some breath as the game settled into its rhythm, but for large periods it remained a high tempo game with quality on display from either side. With the break drawing nearer and the intensity beginning to drop, Strebinger was suddenly forced into a good stop to deny Balic from the left of the area (39'), but that was the last of the good chances in the first period, and so Rapid went into the changing rooms with their 2-1 lead intact.
LASK unsurprisingly came out looking for goals in the second half, but with both teams continuing to threaten, it was Rapid who had the first half-chances after the break. A ball over the top was won by Kara, and he thundered his shot towards goal from the right-hand side of the area, only to see it ricochet back off the post (51'), and then a few minutes later Mateo Barac's distant free kick sailed just over the bar. Kelvin Arase got his chance on the hour mark but both sides were beginning to battle in the midfield and cancel out each other's strengths, which in itself was an advantage for Rapid, as we had the all-important lead. LASK switched to a more counter attacking strategy and Rapid resorted to some lower-risk long balls, but neither team troubled the opposition keepers until the Rapid quarter-hour came around.
Our defence couldn't afford to relax though, as Greiml blocked a Ranftl shot, just seconds before a Wiesinger daisy-cutter needed a fingertip touch from Strebinger to get it to safety (76'). Ritzmaier replaced goal scorer Knasmüllner for the final phase, but by now LASK were going all-out for an equaliser. Ranftl's shot on the turn caught out the Rapid defence but it rolled wide (81'), and Filip Stojkovic cleared a cross from close to the goal line (82') as the action continued at the wrong end of the pitch. Ritzmaier thought he'd earned a penalty on a rare Rapid counter chance (87'), but the game continued at a furious pace until the whistle blew for full time!
Another combative win continued our great run against LASK as well as our winning start to 2021, and after a hard-fought contest against a top team, Rapid remain well and truly in touch at the top!
LASK - SK Rapid 1:2 (1:2)
Raiffeisen Arena Pasching; Ref Walter Altmann
SK Rapid: Strebinger; Stojkovic, Greiml, Barac, Ullmann; Grahovac, Petrovic; Schick, Knasmüllner (78 Ritzmaier), Kitagawa (59. Arase); Kara (93. Schuster)