Football: Salas skill makes the difference

Tim Collings finds the cutting edge to Chelsea's mirror image
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CHELSEA WILL face their mirror images, in every respect but one, when they travel to Rome for their Champions' League Group D encounter with Lazio in the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday. The biancocelesti are one of the Italian capital's biggest clubs, blessed by a sense of style and fuelled by the ambitions of a high-profile, wealthy and innovative owner. They also, like the London club, have a highly respected foreign coach and a swaggering squad packed with cosmopolitan professionals recruited at great expense to play purists' football and deliver a dream.

But, where Chelsea have Chris Sutton at No 9, and Tore Andre Flo as his supplement or replacement, Lazio will send out an exotic Latin American goal-snatcher once coveted by Manchester United - Marcelo Salas - and, arguably, Italy's youngest striker of true potential, Simone Inzaghi.

"It is the area in which I think we can prove we are strongest," Sven- Goran Eriksson, Lazio's wise and worldly Swedish coach, said. "Salas is a world-class centre-forward. He can do anything he wants and he can be a match-winner, but, please, let us wait and see." Gianluca Vialli will be pleased if he is wrong.

Eriksson is not a man to make idle forecasts. Nor is he a man to waste his words. Since taking control of Lazio at Sergio Cragnotti's invitation in July 1997, not long before the club became the first in Italy to go for a stock market flotation, Eriksson has guided them to successive triumphs in the Italian Cup, the Italian Super Cup, the final European Cup Winners' Cup and the European Super Cup. He knows the scene as intimately as any of the continent's great coaches.

Hence, when asked about Chelsea, he smiled. In October, he said, reflecting on the evening he saw Dennis Wise secure a draw for Chelsea against Milan at the San Siro, he had enjoyed them immensely. "It was such a beautiful match... it was propaganda for football - so perfect," he said. "I hope we can produce a match as beautiful again when we play them. It has all the ingredients."

For Eriksson, whose Serie A table-toppers have a squad of depth and experience as well as great talent, this will be the greatest test yet of his players' momentum in pursuit of both domestic and European trophies in their club's centenary season. Eriksson, a man of great Nordic calmness, has confidence in Salas's ability to match the occasion and the Chilean, a man whose temp- erament and behaviour are in stark contrast to his coach's, feels the same.

"We respect Chelsea," he said. "They have many great players. Many big names and men of real experience and achievement. But have you seen our team? When we are at our peak we can beat anyone. It is easy for me to say this, I know, and I don't want to sound boastful. But this is a great Lazio team and we all want to be part of a big success this season. It is a team that has wonderful players, but we are a team. We are not individuals.

"And, for me, it is like a dream game. I want to do well and to score because I hope we go on and reach the final. I want to play Manchester United and show what I can do. That is the real ambition for us. To win now and to beat Manchester again, like we did in Monte Carlo."

Salas remembers vividly, with a flamboyant shrug, the excitement generated in 1998 when Alex Ferguson travelled to Buenos Aires to see him play for River Plate. At the time, the Chilean striker was the most feted star in the Argentinian league and Manchester United, hunting a proven goalscorer of international quality, were ready to make an offer of pounds 13m. River Plate, driving as hard a bargain as possible, wanted pounds 18m.

"It was something that could have happened and been fantastic for me, but it didn't," he said. "It is the same for all people in their lives. But I am very happy to be with Lazio, a great Italian club, living in a great city, enjoying my football. Maybe I am not playing my very best right now, but I am close to it and I am feeling good. Perhaps, against Chelsea, something will happen."

As he talked, Salas's face was as alive as his arms and body. Grinning, squinting with concentration, laughing, moving from one foot to the other. His perpetual motion and sparkling Indian eyes were a metaphor for the threat he will carry when he searches for space behind Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf, preferably with the ball close to the laces of his left boot. "I hope I have a chance to score, that is all, and to help the team," he said. "Maybe one goal will be enough this time."

Given Salas's ability to beat a player on the ground, his spring-heeled aerial threat and his desire to celebrate his 26th birthday on Christmas Eve knowing Lazio have taken a stride towards the quarter-finals, Ken Bates's players are well aware they face a threatening prospect.

Salas's scoring record itself is enough: 83 goals in 136 outings in the Chilean first division for Universidad, where he won two league titles; 24 goals in 48 games for River Plate where he collected three championship medals and one South American Super Cup; and 15 goals in 30 appearances in his first triumphant season for Lazio in Serie A. Another goal on Tuesday will be no surprise, but it may not be enough for victory against Vialli's men of the moment.