Football / Prodigal's Return: Gascoigne set for emotional reunion: Lazio's great hope is ready to take on his former Tottenham team-mates in Rome tonight

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The Independent Online
THEY CAME to bury Gazza, not to praise him. Some of them, anyway. The consensus among those here to witness Paul Gascoigne's much-postponed comeback is that England's best footballer will do well to last the distance in Lazio's friendly against his old club, Tottenham, tonight.

There is a great deal of cynicism locally about the state of the knee he shattered twice - once in the FA Cup final and again in a Newcastle nightclub exactly 12 months ago.

The capricious Italian fans welcomed their pounds 5.5m man with a warmth which had those celebrated tear-ducts working overtime, but they are wearying of all the medical bulletins. Italy is celebrating the festival of martyrs this week, and no prizes for guessing who is being portrayed as one.

Regardless of tonight's outcome, nobody seriously expects Gascoigne to be in Lazio's starting line-up for the Serie A match at home to Genoa on Sunday.

The Roman public have been assured that if he does well tonight, he will make his competitive debut at the weekend, but the breath being held would hardly fill one of his whoopie cushions.

Dino Zoff, the Lazio coach, is forecasting a crowd of 50,000 tonight in the Olympic stadium, which can easily accommodate 85,000, but admission prices have been halved by way of incentive.

Gascoigne looked medically fit, but was blowing hard towards the end of a training session conducted in 80 degrees of glorious sunshine yesterday and, as Zoff was quick to point out, matches are something else.

Sixteen months after rupturing his knee ligaments in that rash challenge on Gary Charles, Lazio's record signing has been working with the first team for only a week, and it would be an uncharacteristic gamble for Zoff to risk him at the weekend.

'Gascoigne will start against Tottenham,' he said. 'As for Sunday, we must wait and think carefully before deciding.'

The last week has seen Zoff both excited and alarmed by the two sides of his flawed genius. In the second of two full-scale practice games he scored a stunning goal to inspire the reserves to a 3-2 victory over the senior side, but then committed an awful foul on Giuseppi Favalli, the club's Under-21 international left-back.

For a ghastly split-second, Zoff had visions of losing two players in one unnecessary incident, and he immediately pulled Gascoigne aside for a dressing-down in his best pidgin. Through an interpreter, the doyen of Italian goalkeepers said last night: 'This is a big match for Paul. I hope it is not too much excitement and emotion for him.'

What might have been a problematical selection became straightforward when Aron Winter was removed from the Lazio midfield to play for the Netherlands in their World Cup qualifier against Norway tomorrow.

Winter it is who Gascoigne is eventually expected to replace, although such a change would require a shuffle - the Dutch recruit from Ajax operating on the right side rather than in the central, playmaking role.

When Gascoigne finally sauntered up, the inevitable 'How did he feel?' brought the response 'Chuffed', which had a few Latin eyebrows shooting skywards.

Invited to elaborate, Gazza said: 'I'm excited. It's a long time since I played in a stadium - any stadium, let alone one as grand as this.'

Spurs are expected to be on their best behaviour, and are unlikely to jeopardise the well-being of their old playmate, but Gascoigne is urging them to provide him with a vigorous test.

'It's a friendly, but I hope Tottenham don't treat it like one. I don't want them pulling out of tackles or holding back in any way. That would ruin the point of the thing. The knee is OK and my stamina is all right. All I need now is games. I want to play the full 90 minutes and I expect to play the full 90 minutes. I'm ready.'

Would he be easing his way back? No chance. 'I've never taken anything easy in my life,' he said. 'It's been a long time, and I want to do everything in one game - everything I did two years ago.'

'Physical contact is no longer the problem,' Zoff said. 'It's a question of Paul's overall physical condition, and his ability to last 90 minutes. He is a great player, and I think he can be the same marvellous player he was with England.'

Amen to that. The question, though, is when?