Gazza gambols to beat the odds

Andrew Gumbel reports from Rome on the return of a new-look footballer whose touch, at least, was familiar
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The Independent Online
He may not have performed miracles, but Paul Gascoigne put on a highly honourable display on his return to action yesterday for the first time since breaking his leg a year ago and, to the delight of Lazio fans, managed to last the full 90 minutes.

A new-look Gazza, 30 pounds lighter and bereft of every last tuft of his shaggy hair, bounced around the pitch as Lazio glided to an easy 2- 0 victory over their low-placed Serie A rivals, Reggiana. He was not involved in either moment of glory, but he produced some elegant passes and nimble footwork and looked as if he was enjoying himself, the crowd cheering his every touch.

Most important of all, he seemed completely fit. He never looked in danger of being substituted, and indeed became more daring and aggressive as the game went on, pushing forward from his midfield position on a number of occasions and even chancing a shot or two.

Terry Venables, the England manager who flew out to Rome to see the enfant terrible back in action, said he was delighted and that he found Gazza's performance "quite remarkable".

It was far too early, however, to tell whether the old magic was on its way back. Gazza looked stylish enough, but clearly needs match practice to hone his skills. Once or twice he found himself outrun by opponents, and a header at goal in the second half was badly mistimed and skied harmlessly over the crossbar.

Gascoigne has come a long way since breaking his right leg during a training session in Rome on 7 April last year. While the newspapers have been following his stormy relationship with his girlfriend, Sheryl, and other off-field shenanigans including his shaved head (a decision he made after a botched attempt to cut his own hair), he has slimmed down to just 11st 5lb from 13st 7lb nine months ago and clearly takes his football every bit as seriously as ever.

He has a tough taskmaster in Zdenek Zeman, the Lazio trainer, who has little time for prima donna behaviour. "It seems to me that Gascoigne has entertained journalists an awful lot, but not the spectators who pay to see games every Sunday," Zeman said. "His performance on the field is the only thing that counts for me."

Although Venables was loath to admit it, yesterday's game was the gentlest possible re-entry for Gascoigne, an unchallenging game against a team that, a quarter of the season left to play, looks irrevocably headed for relegation to Serie B.

Gazza had initially been ruled out for the Italian Cup tie against Juventus in Turin tomorrow night, but there was speculation after the match yesterday that his impressive start might earn him selection. That would give Gazza a much more serious test of his fitness.