Milan go clear as Baggio hits form


AC MILAN, starting the year in crushing form on a freshly-laid' pitch, brushed aside Sampdoria 3-0 to go three points clear in the Italian soccer league yesterday as rivals Fiorentina drew at Roma.

First-half goals from Christian Panucci and Montenegrin striker Dejan Savicevic and a brilliantly-taken 56th-minute shot by Italian international Roberto Baggio handed Milan their first home win in three matches at a wet San Siro.

Sampdoria played the last five minutes of the match with 10 men after Roberto Mancini was carried off on a stretcher following a serious collision with Milan's newly-crowned European Player-of-the-Year George Weah.

The win left Milan on 33 points ahead of Fiorentina on 30 with just one match to go to the season's midpoint.

Fiorentina travelled to Roma's Olympic Stadium for a match billed as a clash between the visitors' Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta and his Roma compatriot Abel Balbo.

Balbo looked like winning the battle with goals in the fifth and 50th minute to send Roma 2-0 up but Fiorentina rose to the challenge with Anselmo Robbiati scoring in the 61st and then Batistuta hitting the equaliser in the 70th.

The goal briefly made Batistuta the league's top scorer with 11 but Igor Protti overtook him later on 12 with two second half goals to help struggling Bari thrash Inter 4-1. The result was Inter's heaviest defeat since English manager Roy Hodgson took over at the club late last year.

Parma stayed third on 28 points alter being held to a 2-2 draw at a 10-man Torino while Lazio's challenge faltered. They went down 1-0 to Napoli after Croat striker Alen Boksic was sent off for throwing a punch in the 40th minute.

Milan had paid £250.000 to have the pitch returned in time for their opening game of the New Year after coach Fabio Capello had complained about the poor condition.

Panucci sent Milan ahead in the 10th minute but it was Savicevic and Baggio who dominated the game. Savicevic scored in the 38th, picking up on a defensive error by Sampdoria to burst clear into the area and then beat the despairing goalkeeper with a calm right footed shot.

Baggio, who joined Milan from champions Juventus last summer, scored after dribbling past several defenders.

Juventus, given a ferocious talking to after the New Year break by coach Marcello Lippi, beat Atalanta 1-0. Striker Fabrizio Ravanelli, who had looked a prime candidate to be dropped, scored with a 58th-minute penalty.

The match was marred by nasty incidents near the end when a group of fans threw coins at and insulted Roberto Bettega, vice-president of Juventus, as he tried to leave the ground. The club's sporting director, Luciano Moggi, also had to be escorted from the stand by Carabinieri police.

Atalanta played with 10 men after striker Sandro Tovalieri was sent off in the 78th minute for a second booking.

Parma twice took the lead at Torino but conceded two goals through poor defending despite dominating the match. Torino had midfielder Paolo Cristallini sent off in the 69th minute but it merely spurred them on and French defender Jocelyn Angloma grabbed the equaliser in the 78th.