Chelsea poised to qualify for quarter-finals

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The Independent Football

The unexpectedly fraternal banner in the section of Rome's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday populated by Lazio's Ultras read "There's only two teams in Europe. See you in the final."

The unexpectedly fraternal banner in the section of Rome's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday populated by Lazio's Ultras read "There's only two teams in Europe. See you in the final."

Perhaps Paul Gascoigne's lingering popularity in Rome, as well as Chelsea's heavy Italian presence, had something to do with this Anglophilia; it was certainly very different from Lazio's first competitive European tie, back in 1970, when Arsenal's players and staff literally had to fight their way out of the ground.

As for the banner's central message, if a European Cup final between the two teams next May is an outside bet, Chelsea now have every reason to be as optimistic as the Romans of qualifying from Group D of the Champions' League. Tuesday's goalless draw, the fairest possible result from a generally disappointing game, leaves the two sides unbeaten and in a position to have ensured a place in the quarter-final before meeting again in the last group match on 22 March. Marseilles, Chelsea's next opponents on 29 February, face a bleak midwinter break after being beaten 3-0 by Feyenoord, whose feeble performance a fortnight ago while losing 3-1 at Stamford Bridge offers no great hope for their double header against Lazio.

The Italians' coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, appeared quite satisfied with extending his team's unbeaten record in European competition to 18 games, though there was possibly an element of self-justification in that, following his decision to start with Simone Inzaghi ahead of Marcelo Salas on the odd grounds that Salas was not available for this weekend's important league game against Fiorentina. Inzaghi failed to beat Ed de Goey from Lazio's only real chance of the first half and Salas did not improve matters significantly, a header sliding off the pate of Attilio Lombardo being as close as the home team came to victory.

"We are not crying about the result," Eriksson said. "It was Chelsea, not any old opponent. We could have done better, I know that, but it wasn't a bad game."

Gianluca Vialli was just as equable, despite the embarrassment of the Chelsea manager being sent from the dug-out after 55 minutes for abusing a linesman. "I took my protest too far," he admitted, "but the fourth official was a bit tetchy." Uefa, football's European governing body, was yesterday waiting to receive the referee's report before deciding whether Vialli should be punished with a further touch-line ban.

It was a surprisingly comfortable last 35 minutes for Vialli, watching a television monitor down by the dressing-rooms as emissaries scampered upstairs with an occasional message for his assistant, Ray Wilkins, at pitch-side. Well before the end, Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman, might have claimed support for his contention, expressed in the context of the new Wembley, that an athletics track round a football pitch dilutes atmosphere, for the crowd were either unwilling or unable to convey much passion.

Vialli insists that all thoughts of the Champions' League must now be put aside in attempting to solve the conundrum of Chelsea's domestic form (one win in seven games) in comparison to their European record (one defeat in 10). He could contribute by not taking what would have seemed the inevitable step a couple of months ago in resting half the team for Saturday's FA Cup tie away to Hull City. Chris Sutton and Jody Morris will be hoping for a recall, but otherwise Vialli should stick with the players who redeemed themselves in Rome and demand that they show the same application and concentration on Humberside.

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