Football: Lazio will pose truer test of Chelsea's pedigree

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The Independent Online
FRANK LEBOEUF'S suggestion that Chelsea can go "a long way" in the Champions' League displayed an optimism understandable in the aftermath of his team's 3-1 win over Feyenoord at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, but the Frenchman was not slow to emphasise the threat presented by Lazio, whom Chelsea meet in Rome on 7 December.

Lazio's 2-0 away win over Olympique Marseilles in Wednesday's other Group D tie came as a rude awakening to the crowd in the Stade Velodrome, but Chelsea would already have been aware of the qualities of a team able to take the points after starting the match without its three celebrated Argentinian midfielders - Juan Sebastian Veron and Matias Almeyda were on the bench, while Diego Simeone was serving a suspension.

This is a squad as full of top-flight experience as that assembled by Gianluca Vialli, and the margin of their victory would have been doubled had Sergio Conceicao, the normally reliable Brazilian playing wide on the right, profited from a couple of relatively simple chances before Dejan Stankovic opened the scoring in the 65th minute. Sergio Conceicao eventually made amends, tapping the ball into an open goal after Marcelo Salas had done the work of unpeeling the defensive cover.

Wednesday's victory was Lazio's 17th consecutive game in Europe without defeat, including last season's successful campaign in the last-ever Cup- Winners' Cup and their win over Manchester United in the European Super Cup.

All this must make them odds-on favourites to qualify as winners of the group, and Wednesday's result went some way to erasing the memory of their disaster in the local derby three days earlier, when they conceded four goals to Roma by half-time before losing the match 4-1.

Given the energetic banality of Feyenoord's display in London, it seems that Chelsea are likely to find themselves fighting it out for the second qualification place with Marseilles, who also made chances in the Velodrome, particularly when Kaba Diawara, the former Arsenal striker, was on the pitch and seeking to profit from the hard work of Stephane Dalmat. Marseilles enjoy nothing like Lazio's strength in depth, but in their captain, Robert Pires, and their midfield all-rounder, Peter Luccin, they have two players of authentic class.

Chelsea's performance told us little we did not know, while re-emphasising the difficulty they experience in turning domination into goals. The 4- 0 win over Sunderland with which they opened their Premiership programme and the astonishing 5-0 victory over Galatasaray in Istanbul showed that they can do it, but the number of opportunities they spurned against Lazio shows that the composition of the team is not yet perfect. On Wednesday they showed their tendency to over-elaboration in the central attacking areas, enjoyable for purists but hard on their coaches' nerves.

For the result they relied on the excellence on the flanks of Celestine Babayaro, the scorer of the opening goal, and Dan Petrescu, whose dynamism becomes all the more vital in the light of Gustavo Poyet's difficulty in reproducing his scintillating form of the season's early weeks.

Gianfranco Zola was a joy to watch, his entire performance an exuberant celebration of his inclusion - along with Poyet and Marcel Desailly - in the list of 50 players from whom the France Football jury will select the winner of the 1999 Ballon d'or next month. But his ultimate profligacy, and that of Tore Andre Flo, for all the Norwegian striker's two second- half goals, will not be so kindly treated by the more rigorous opposition to be expected under a Roman hillside in 12 days' time.

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