Football: Chelsea need European form to hold off the lions of Lazio

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CHELSEA MUST hope that their renowned system of rotation - forgettable performances in the Premiership, followed by memorable ones in Europe - can be employed to good effect when they are thrown to the lions of Lazio in Rome this evening.

Since the 5-0 demolition of Manchester United at Stamford Bridge early in October, Gianluca Vialli's team have managed only one domestic victory, a scrambled one against Bradford City, while winning their Champions' League group and beginning the second stage of the competition by brushing aside Feyenoord. The trend continued at Sunderland on Saturday, when, all too predictably, a winter's day on Wearside brought colder comfort than an autumnal evening in Milan.

Vialli called his players together on Sunday to discuss why that should be the case. "I told them we had to improve dramatically before it's too late," he said yesterday. "But now is the best time to get a good result, as that would let us forget Saturday." Significantly, the manager was honest enough to question himself as well. "I haven't got great experience as a manager, so I make more mistakes than Wenger or Ferguson, for example," he admitted. "I'm learning my trade and I hope to learn from my mistakes. When you perform as poorly as we did on Saturday, you know you've done something wrong as a manager."

Tonight's game is a belated meeting of the clubs who should have contested the Cup-Winners' Cup final last May. Throughout the competition they looked to be just about the only sides of any pedigree, but Chelsea went out in the semi-final to Real Mallorca, whose defeat at Villa Park then provided the Romans with compensation of a sort for their dramatic failure to secure the Serie A title.

Victory over a rather uninterested Manchester United in the European Super Cup in August provided a psychological tonic for this season's challenge on the back of a spending spree financed in part by the world-record sale of Christian Vieri to Internazionale. Unlike Chelsea, Lazio have been almost as consistent against domestic opposition as in Europe, putting together an unbeaten sequence of 23 matches before suffering the trauma of going 4-0 down in half an hour to Roma, their co-tenants and everlasting rivals. The subsequent 4-1 defeat, while hard to bear, has done no greater damage than leaving them joint top of the table. London bookmakers rate them as second favourites behind Barcelona to win Europe's premier bauble.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, the vastly experienced Swede now in charge of his fourth Italian club, is long enough in the tooth not to read too much into Chelsea's black day at the Stadium of Light. He has also mixed and matched his players and will be forced to do so again tonight as half a dozen of them including Sinisa Mihajlovic and Dejan Stankovic are injured or suspended.

The list of probable replacements emphasises the depth of the squad, with Portugal's Fernando Couto in defence, David Beckham's nemesis Diego Simeone likely to join his fellow Argentinian Roberto Sensini in midfield, and Alen Boksic, Simone Inzaghi and Roberto Mancini, for years Vialli's striking partner at Sampdoria all available to support the Chilean Marcelo Salas. Even so, they hope to sign Fabrizio Ravanelli, on a free transfer from Marseilles, in the new year.

Not surprisingly, Lazio are the top scorers in Italy, averaging well over two goals per game with a range of attacking options that makes Chelsea's look as thin as Mrs Beckham.

Marcel Desailly, who was taken off at half-time on Saturday, Frank Leboeuf and Albert Ferrer should all start and must respond as strongly as they did for the 1-1 draw away to Milan, which was one of the team's most impressive efforts of the season. Eriksson called that "a beautiful match" though with both tonight's sides having begun the second stage by winning comfortably (Lazio 2-0 in Marseilles) aesthetics will not have a high priority this time.

Lazio (probable): Marchegiani; Gottardi, Nesta, Fernando Couto, Favalli; Sergio Conceicao, Veron, Sensini, Simeone; Salas, Boksic.

Chelsea (probable): De Goey; Ferrer, Leboeuf, Desailly, Babayaro; Petrescu, Wise, Deschamps, Poyet; Flo, Zola.