Football: Lazio need victory to justify expenditure

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The Independent Online
THE clubs contesting the last Cup-Winners' Cup final at Villa Park tonight occupy the runners-up positions in Italy and Spain respectively, but a coincidence of current status is virtually all that Lazio and Real Mallorca have in common.

Second-placed in Serie A going into the final round of fixtures represents a nightmare scenario for Lazio's pounds 100m team, the most expensive in the history of the game, who look likely to miss the Italian title after leading for several months until last weekend.

By contrast, second spot in the Primera Liga is beyond the wildest dreams of Mallorca's cheaply assembled side, who escaped the Second Division via a play-off just two years ago and are in their first European campaign.

The disparity in resources ensures that Lazio start as strong favourites to collect their first Continental trophy. By the same token, the pressure on their Swedish coach, the urbane Sven-Goran Eriksson, is more intense than on his Argentinian counterpart, Hector Cuper, especially now that Milan are poised to take the title which once seemed certain to be returning to Rome.

Lazio, having outspent all their rivals at home and abroad since Sergio Cragnotti became president six years ago, almost literally cannot afford to lose. Eriksson laid out pounds 70m last summer alone, stimulating the popular clamour to unprecedented levels for a club with only one championship to their name. Yet his record, both with Sampdoria and in the capital, remains one of narrow failure.

Had things worked out differently, of course, Eriksson would have been flashing Jack Walker's wallet around the transfer market. After being unveiled as Ray Harford's successor at Blackburn, he withdrew for "personal reasons". Ironically, he has also found there is a price to pay for having money to burn, although the possibility that Lazio may fail to win one or both honours scarcely compares with the ignominy of relegation.

Eriksson denied yesterday that his "nearly man" image was a source of personal concern, preferring to accentuate the virtues of his squad. He certainly has an embarrassment of riches. Players of the quality of Ivan de la Pena, Alen Boksic, Roberto Mancini and the former Crystal Palace acting manager Attilio Lombardo are merely vying for a place on the bench, backing up an awesome striking partnership of Christian Vieri and Marcelo Salas.

Asked which held the greater priority, the championship or tonight's match, Eriksson admitted: "To win the League in Italy is maybe more important than the Cup-Winners' Cup, though we're not thinking about that at the moment."

The difference between the finalists was exemplified by Cuper's response when pressed for his preference: runners-up to Barcelona or victory at Villa Park? "The final," he replied without hesitation.

The craggy Cuper has worked a football miracle with the unsung island club. After starting with the slenderest of aggregate successes over Heart of Midlothian, they arrived in Birmingham having eliminated the holders, Chelsea, and conceded only three goals in eight European games.

Mallorca also boast Spain's tightest defence - even if a record of 26 goals conceded in 34 matches is an open-door policy compared with Arsenal - and have beaten Barcelona three times this season. Cuper repeatedly stressed the importance of their team spirit yesterday, clearly hoping it might bridge any gulf in class.

His compatriot, Carlos Roa, will present an agile if eccentric barrier to Lazio. The goalkeeper's religious beliefs suggest that the world will end at the millennium. For Eriksson, it would not have been the end of the world to have lost tonight - provided they won the domestic title. Suddenly, the Cup-Winners' Cup's swan-song has taken on a tense new significance for Lazio.

Lazio (4-4-2, probable): Marchegiani; Negro, Nesta, Mihajlovic, Pancaro; Sergio Conceicao, D Stankovic, Almeyda, Nedved; Vieri, Salas.

Real Mallorca (4-4-2, probable): Roa; Olaizola, Marcelino, Siviero, M Soler; Lauren, Paunovic, Engonga, J Stankovic; Dani, Biagini.

Referee: G Benko (Austria).