Football: Italian Preview - Lazio `tranquil' as Milan close

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The Independent Online
IF LAZIO were looking for a morale booster after the two worst weeks of their otherwise triumphant season, their CupWinners' Cup semi- final on Thursday failed to provide it.

True, the Romans qualified for a European final for the second consecutive year, but the way they did it - on the away goals rule after a soporific 0-0 draw in the second leg at the Olympic Stadium - can have done little to convince their coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, that his side are truly in line for trophies this year.

Lazio appeared to have the championship secured a fortnight ago before two consecutive defeats and two straight victories for Milan threw the race wide open again. The Rome club had to cope with numerous absences in defence last weekend as they slumped to a 3-1 loss to Juventus, and should recover all but the suspended Alessandro Nesta.

However, it is the level of team morale which most worries Eriksson before tomorrow's live Channel 4 game against Sampdoria in Genoa. The biggest threat to his team is the creeping self-doubt after taking just one point in their last three games and seeing Milan close to within a single point. "Physically we're OK and psychologically we're reasonably OK. I'm not worried and I'd still be ready to bet on us winning the title," said the Swede.

"Everybody keeps saying that Milan are favourites, but I think we are. We're top of the table today, just as we were a few months ago. The only thing that's changed in the last two weeks is the size of our lead. We're only at risk if we lose our sense of tranquillity. Otherwise there won't be a problem because we have the best team."

"For a whole month we can concentrate solely on the championship," he said. "Are we afraid that Milan are right on our heels? No, fear doesn't exist in football."

Lazio's visit to struggling Sampdoria is arguably the easiest of their five remaining league matches. They then travel to Udinese, Bologna, Fiorentina and entertain Parma on the last day of the season.