European Football: Italian giants ready for battle

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THE DEFENDING Serie A champions, Juventus, and Italian Cup holders Lazio meet in a crucial match at the Stadio Delle Alpi in Turin today.

Juventus come into the game in fifth place, four points behind the leaders Fiorentina, having slipped back after suffering two defeats in their last four Serie A matches, including last week's 3-0 demolition by Bologna.

The visitors are currently lying in 10th position, having been defeated in three of their last five league matches and, last Sunday night, allowed a comfortable lead to slip away when they let in two last-gasp goals to squander victory in the Rome derby.

Both the Juventus coach Marcello Lippi and Lazio's Sven Goran Eriksson, however, believe that the worst is now behind them, taking heart from good mid-week performances. On Wednesday, Juventus drew their postponed Champions' League tie with the Turkish side Galatasaray 1-1 in Istanbul while on Thursday Lazio beat Internazionale 2-1 in the first leg of their Italian Cup quarter-final.

"I was very satisfied with our demonstration of solidity and strength in Istanbul," Lippi said. "I get the impression that there are a whole lot of people around me just waiting to write the words 'end of the line' alongside the name Juventus. However we've every intention of putting off that day as long as possible and what's more we're convinced we can do so."

Juventus, without their long-term injury victim Alessandro Del Piero, continue to field a makeshift strikeforce of Filippo Inzaghi and the Frenchman Zinedine Zidane. In midfield Jocelyn Blanchard, of France, replaces the injured Dutchman Edgar Davids and the reserve goalkeeper Michelangelo Rampulla comes in for the injured Angelo Peruzzi.

Lazio have injury problems with the Czech Pavel Nedved the latest to join an injury list that includes the strikers Christian Vieri and Croatia's Alen Boksic. However, despite all the setbacks, Lazio's Swedish coach is in a positive frame of mind. "We're on the way back," he said. "I'm convinced that we're finally heading in the right direction."

Roberto Mancini and the Chilean Marcelo Salas continue to lead the Lazio attack while the Italian international defender Alessandro Nesta may return to start his first Serie A game since injuring himself in the opening minutes of Italy's first-round game against Austria in the World Cup.