Chelsea dislodged Lazio from the Group G summit last night, shrugging off the injustice of Simone Inzaghi's first-half goal to claim a deserved victory with two flourishes from Frank Lampard and Adrian Mutu. The only Roman smiling at Stamford Bridge was Abramovich.
Claudio Ranieri's expensively assembled side now has a real chance of a Champions' League run for their owner's money. Yet it was a close-run thing at the end. Their former Lazio goalkeeper, Carlo Cudicini, had to save acrobatically from Bernardo Corradi's header, while Massimo Oddo's 35-yard chipped shot dipped inches over with the last kick.
After the disappointment of losing at home to Besiktas in their previous game, and then setbacks at Birmingham and Arsenal, Ranieri's rapture was tinged with relief. "I asked for a good reaction after our defeat at Highbury," Chelsea's Italian manager said. "And I got it.
"We still have some tough matches before we are sure to go through to the next stage. My foreign players were marvellous but most of all, this win came because of the fighting spirit of our English players. Frank Lampard and John Terry really showed it tonight."
They needed to, Roberto Mancini's Lazio side having seized the initiative with their first effort on target in the 38th minute. Chelsea lost concentration after clearing a corner and an unmarked Dejan Stankovic nodded Oddo's follow-up centre into the six-yard box. Inzaghi's forehead did the rest.
This presented Chelsea with a fresh test of cohesion and camaraderie, qualities not always evident in the brave blue world. They eventually passed it, with flying colours but without Juan Sebastian Veron. The Argentinian faded after a fine start.
For a while, he looked a £15m midfielder. Midway through the first half, a slide-rule pass found Mutu. The Romanian turned Sinisa Mihajlovic with ease, only to roll his shot wide.
Another laser delivery by Veron picked out Eidur Gudjohnsen, who cut deep into the Lazio area before laying the ball inside. Jaap Stam, briefly Veron's colleague at Old Trafford, made a sliding clearance.
Veron's eagerness to make an impact after a stop-start introduction to life after Manchester United was palpable. It got the better of him when his late challenge left Demetrio Albertini writhing. The referee showed him a yellow card and Veron's influence began to wane.
Lazio, as Ranieri had warned, were content initially to play on the counter-attack. In one such move, Corradi launched himself into a spectacular overhead kick but missed the ball completely, to the crowd's sardonic cheers.
Chelsea's enterprise deserved better than to be trailing. They all but drew level in the dying seconds of the first half, Lampard's fierce drive from 22 yards beating Angelo Peruzzi but shaking the angle of post and bar.
Home frustration found an exhilarating release on 57 minutes. Duff, operating increasingly as a winger and enhancing Chelsea's balance, drew groans as he fed Gudjohnsen out wide rather than run at the defence.
Happily for Chelsea, the players were more patient than the punters. Gudjohnsen's precise cut-back to the "D" was met by a sumptuous shot by Lampard with the outside of the right boot, the ball swerving away from Peruzzi before hitting the net. "Amazing," Ranieri gushed later.
Six minutes later Veron gave way to Jesper Gronkjaer. Within 60 seconds the Dane crossed - he was instructed to keep it low as Stam and Mihajlovic were mopping up the high centres - for Mutu to take aim. Stam blocked his first effort; the second was clinically despatched.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cudicini; Johnson, Gallas, Terry, Bridge; Lampard, Makelele, Veron (Gronkjaer, 64); Duff (Geremi, 78), Gudjohnsen, Mutu (Cole, 86). Substitutes not used: Hasselbaink, Melchiot, Huth, Ambrosio (gk).
Lazio (4-4-2): Peruzzi; Oddo, Stam, Mihajlovic, Favalli; Sergio Conceicão, Albertini, Stankovic (Liverani, 83), Zauri (Fiore, 74); Corradi, Inzaghi (Muzzi, 69). Substitutes not used: Dabo, Claudio Lopez, Negro, Sereni (gk).
Referee: T Hauge (Norway).
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