Football: Gascoigne's circus exits

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The Independent Online
LAZIO left for Rome last night with their kit-man pondering the whereabouts of an absent sock. The trail led to the club's maverick Englishman, Paul Gascoigne, whose cheerful, generous side had prompted him to present the discarded garment to a delighted Spurs fan, writes Henry Winter.

Therein lies Gazza's off-field problem: since the tears in Turin everyone has wanted a piece of the English playmaker - from a hopeful souvenir-hunter to a voracious media.

This weekend was no exception. Gascoigne's breath-taking goal and all-round display against Tottenham on Saturday should have had him waking up to 'King Paul' headlines yesterday. Instead, it was 'Gazza's Food Binge Torment' on the front and 'Gazza Bust-up' on the back.

The retelling of a wondrous dribble - which had bemused Darren Caskey, Dean Austin and Colin Calderwood, and culminated in a swerving shot around Erik Thorstvedt - had been buried under an avalanche of other Gazza-related stories. The prospect of an in-form Gascoigne resurrecting England's World Cup cause was forgotten as a nation breakfasted on tabloid tales of alleged over-eating and vomiting. Gazza's chosen style of 'refuelling' was again a matter of countrywide conjecture.

Gascoigne, admittedly, provides newsworthy distractions. Against his old club, he argued with the referee (a fit of pique ended only by the intervention of other players), petulantly kicked Darren Anderton twice, bowled over Nick Barmby, teased the Tottenham dug-out and refused to speak to reporters - a move guaranteed to intensify the press pressure.

It was left to Dino Zoff, the Lazio manager who has not looked so perplexed since Socrates nutmegged him in 1982, to defend his most creative player. Gascoigne's alleged eating disorder 'simply does not exist', the former Italian goalkeeper said. 'If it was true that he was taking laxatives he would be too weak to play.' Zoff, aware of Gascoigne's importance to a team of modest invention (Giuseppe Signori and Aron Winter apart), added: 'He is a great player; an artist in his job.'

The brushstrokes of Gascoigne's artistry had a restricted canvas yesterday as an elegant, confident Ajax side outplayed Lazio to win the wooden- spoon match 2-0 with firm shots from the Finn, Jari Litmanen, and the excellent midfielder, John van der Brom, a new signing from Vitesse Arnhem who will surely add to his two international caps soon. England might shortly be hearing his name again.

But, against the tide, there were moments of mastery from Gascoigne which quickened the pulse of any Englishman present: a fine (disallowed) free-kick and some penetrative passes showed what can be achieved against Dutch opposition. In 10 weeks' time in Rotterdam, England will need such ambition and arrogance.

Ajax: Menzo; Blind, F De Boer, Van der Brom, Kreek, Seedorf, Finidi, Davids, Pettersson (R De Boer, 63), Litmanen (Petersen, 72), Overmars.

Lazio: Marchegiani; Negro (Corino, 71), Favalli, Di Matteo, Bergodi, Cravero, Marcolin, Sclosa, Saurini, Gascoigne (Bacci, 71), Signori.

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).