European Football: Lacklustre Lazio face sternest test

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HIGH-FLYING Roma go into tonight's capital derby against Lazio determined to continue the form that has, so far, confounded their Serie A rivals.

During the close-season, Zdenek Zeman's side were overshadowed by their co- tenants at the Stadio Olimpico as Lazio constructed the most expensive side ever assembled.

Italy's World Cup striker Christian Vieri and the Chilean Marcelo Salas were recruited as Lazio's new strike force with the Yugoslavian Dejan Stankovic and Barcelona's Ivan De La Pena pushing forward from midfield. The defence was bolstered by the capture of Fernando Couto and another Yugoslav, Sinisa Mihajlovic.

Lazio entered the new campaign with good reason to believe that they were in an excellent position to add to the only Scudetto in their history, won back in 1974. But, so far, there has been little return on the Lazio president Sergio Cragnotti's pounds 70m outlay with the team languishing in ninth place.

Meanwhile, Roma, whose summer spending was far more modest, have soared to second place, level on points with Juventus and Milan. To date, they have already pulled off memorable victories over Fiorentina and Juventus, and boast a 100 per cent record at the Stadio Olimpico - although this weekend they are technically the away team.

Lazio have been hampered by injuries, notably to Vieri and De La Pena, although a team with their resources should not be using that as an excuse. The only statistic that stands in Lazio's favour is that they have won the last four derbies.

Roberto Baggio and Ronaldo are set to lead an Internazionale revival, starting at the San Siro today against Salernitana. The pair, recovering form after injuries, came together for only 22 minutes of Wednesday's 3-1 Champions' League victory over Real Madrid, with Baggio coming off the bench to score a magnificent brace.

"This can be a really good team," said Baggio. "We have such a strong squad and, for me, it is wonderful to play in this team. I know we can make it successful. The start of the season has not been fantastic, but now we can begin again."

The Inter coach Luigi Simone has been under pressure from the fans in recent weeks, with his side in eighth in Serie A, but they now have one foot in the quarter-finals of the Champions' League and he has a earned a stay of execution. A victory next month in Austria against Sturm Graz, would seal a place in the last eight and boost their revival after a faltering opening spell.

Fiorentina will be optimistic of staying atop the table when they visit Bari, while Milan face a tough trip to Parma, who are just two points behind the San Siro giants. Juventus look to have an easier task away to Bologna. Sampdoria make the trip to Venezia while Cagliari visit Udinese and Empoli host Vicenza. Perugia welcome Piacenza in the other match.

Meanwhile, Marseille, who top the French League, will host a resurgent Paris St Germain side at the Stade Velodrome tonight. PSG had a dismal start to the season, culminating in the departure of their coach Alain Giresse, but the former Portugal manager Artur Jorge has returned to steady the ship. Marseille have been scoring freely, however, through Florian Maurice and Fabrizio Ravanelli.

Milan jumped back into the top 10 of the European club rankings this week thanks to Leonardo's injury-time winner against Lazio last week.The Italians moved up eight places after the 1-0 victory and are now 10th.

The surprise Spanish League leaders Mallorca also returned to the top 10 after their 1-0 win over Barcelona at the weekend, going up four places to 11th. Bayern Munich continue to lead the way with Fiorentina and Olympique Marseille their closest rivals.