Football: Mancini the man to call the tune

Tim Collings in Marseilles sees a veteran turn orchestrator
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The Independent Online
WRAPPED IN a grey cashmere overcoat, a scarf tucked under his chin to keep out the cold above the neat collar of his club-crested, dark- blue suit, Roberto Mancini looked more like a lost fashion icon than a veteran footballer as he weaved through the thrusting microphones and bobbing cameras of the "mixed zone" at the Velodrome late on Wednesday night. Praised by his stubble-faced Lazio team-mate Sinisa Mihajlovic, he of the magical left boot and meteoric free-kicks, as the key influence on their play, Mancini merely smiled and shrugged. He has, after all, seen and heard it all before.

Yesterday, Mancini celebrated his 35th birthday by preparing for today's visit from Juventus, probably with a glass of mineral water and a slow grin in recognition of his longevity in Serie A, in which he has made 524 appearances and scored 156 goals. "He proved he is a great player, very important to us and to the way we play," said the Yugoslav defender. "He was missing last Sunday and look what happened."

In the famous derby capitale, the biancocelesti conceded four goals in the first half against bitter city rivals Roma and went down 4-1. It was their first defeat in 24 outings, since losing to Juventus last April, but they remained on top of Serie A. "It was a bad day for us," said Lazio's Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, his sadness compounded by the taunts that followed him home in the eternal city. "It was an alarm call," said Marcelo Salas, the Chilean goalscorer who partners Mancini at the centre of Lazio's attack.

As a result, at training last Monday before a Champions' League clash with Marseilles, Lazio's pounds 100m league-topping squad was subjected to the ignominy of insults and assaults on their own practice pitch from trespassing fans. It left Mancini and his colleagues, their pride already bruised, stinging with indignation. "It was not nice," he said. "It was bad for Lazio, bad for everyone. They had the right to protest, but not to break in and attack the players. It was not dignified for Lazio."

Without a single Scudetto to their name, Lazio and their ambitious president Sergio Cragnotti are aiming to celebrate the club's centenary next year with a triumphant campaign in Serie A and, if possible, in the European Cup. Next up in the latter are Chelsea, who visit the Stadio Olimpico on 7 December.

Unless Chelsea's Premiership form shows a sustained improvement, Gianluca Vialli may have personal grounds for fearing Lazio's all-round excellence, strength in depth and experience. The Marseilles' coach, Rolland Courbis, a bon viveur who loved the club and city of his birth, resigned on Thursday after his capricious team had been the first to lose at home to an Italian club.

"This is a great club now," said Mancini, whose 19-year Serie A career has embraced long spells with Bologna and Sampdoria and brought him 36 caps. "We have a truly great squad with many high-quality players and a good collective mentality. There is an understanding and a good system. Chelsea? Yes, of course we respect them. Vialli is an intelligent man, a good football man who knows what he is doing. Chelsea have a great squad, too, but not as strong as Lazio's. Not the same depth.

"It is going to be such an interesting game. Two great squads and two clubs wanting to win very badly. We have never won Serie A and we want to be champions. It is the same for Chelsea, as we have both have never won the European Cup. Of course, I know the players. I have been on the [same] pitch with them all many times. Zola is a great player, very skilful and clever.

"I like Flo, too. We think he could be dangerous. And we have big respect for Desailly and Deschamps. Both are great players, strong and technical and professional. They have done everything. But we know we have strengths too. We can win this game and we believe we can have a very successful season."

Goals from the Yugoslav midfielder Dejan Stankovic, just 21, and his Portuguese counterpart Sergio Conceicao were fair reward for a cultured and measured display at the ground where Manchester United lost 1-0 a month before, but some of the gloss was dulled by seven second-half bookings. This proved costly as Mihailovic, the right-back Giuseppe Pancaro and Stankovic will be suspended against Chelsea.

But, with Diego Simeone and Simone Inzaghi left out and such world-class stars as Alen Boksic and Juan Sebastian Veron on the bench, Lazio truly have a squad to cope, especially with Mancini pulling the strings.