Football: Christian retraces Spanish steps to Rome

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LAZIO have spent a fortune in an attempt to make the transition from a good cup side to championship contenders, and their fans will get a glimpse of their potential today when they begin the new Italian season with a trip to Piacenza.

The Roman club, owned by the financier and food processing tycoon Sergio Cragnotti, were one of the strongest clubs in Serie A last season, remaining in title contention with champions Juventus and runners-up Inter Milan until April.

They won the Italian Cup and lost to Inter in the Uefa Cup final but Cragnotti will not be satified until they are Serie A champions. To prove the point, he has been a prolific spender on the transfer market, shelling out more than pounds 60m this year.

The biggest buy, for pounds 17.5m, was Christian Vieri from Atletico Madrid while other expensive newcomers include the Chilean striker Marcelo Salas, Yugoslav midfielder Dejan Stankovic, Spanish midfielder Ivan de la Pena, and the Portuguese pair, defender Fernando Couto and midfielder Sergio Conceicao.

Nearly all are expected to play on Sunday against Piacenza, a side who traditionally have to fight for Serie A survival and this season will be doing it as the only top-flight club with an all-Italian squad. Lazio have already made a more than satisfactory seasonal start, beating Juventus 2-1 in the Super Cup, the traditional curtain-raiser, two weeks ago.

On Wednesday, Lazio continued their winning ways, albeit less impressively, when defeating second division Cosenza 2-1 in an Italian Cup second round, first leg tie.

For the game against Piacenza, Lazio's shrewd Swedish coach Sven Goran Eriksson is forced to make his first important team choices. The veteran striker Roberto Mancini may be dropped in favour of a Vieri-Salas front line and a four-man midfield which will include de la Pena, Conceicao and the Czech Pavel Nedved, but not Stankovic.

Piacenza, a side which has regularly embarrassed big names and which last season held Lazio to two 0-0 draws, look to the experience of men like the former Bayern Munich striker Ruggiero Rizzitelli and the much- travelled 39-year-old defender Pietro Vierchowod.

Salas knows only too well that the fans expect a winning start to the season, saying this week. "I just hope that we can play with the same line-up for the first three or four games so that we can build up an understanding because, obviously, the potential here is enormous," he said.

Also in action today, Bari play host to Venezia, who are back in Serie A after a 32-year absence. Venezia rely on a squad of seasoned campaigners such as the former Milan striker Filippo Maniero and the ex-Fiorentina defender Daniele Carnasciali. Bari give debuts to two new Swedes - the midfielder Daniel Andersson and the striker Yksel Osmanovski.

Inter Milan travel to Cagliari without Ronaldo, who is suspended, and the Nigerians, Taribo West and Nwankwo Kanu, who are injured. But Roberto Baggio teams up with the Chilean Ivan Zamorano and France's Youri Djorkaeff in a powerful front line. Cagliari are back in Serie A after a two-year absence and are hoping that Uruguay's Fabian O'Neill and Cameroon striker Patrick Mboma, another Serie A debutant, will gell.

The champions, Juventus, little changed this season, take a full-strength squad to Perugia with Filippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Del Piero leading the attack and the French World Cup winners, Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane, running the midfield. Perugia field a Japanese midfielder, Hidetoshi Nakata, one of the more interesting newcomers to Serie A.