Roma would love to take their chance to party

 

Euroscene Paddy Agnew: If the Italian football movement were looking for a five-star, glamorous stage on which to take the first step back to international rehabilitation, then tonight's mouth-watering Champions League clash between AS Roma and Real Madrid would seem to fit the bill nicely.

The problem is that Italian football, humiliated by three years of European club competition failure and by a mid-summer World Cup debacle, may be headed for more pain tonight at the Olympic Stadium in Rome against the reigning European champions.

For the connoisseur, however, this should be a rare treat as some of the game's greatest talents meet in a match where defeat may, in the long run, prove irrelevant.

Real warmed up for tonight's task by visiting Pope John Paul II in a private audience at his summer residence of Castelgandolfo outside Rome yesterday.

Cynics might argue that if ever there was a side that needed little by way of divine help, it is the Real of Figo, Zidane, Raul, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo et al.

Big names and tall reputations, of course, do not win football games. That point was not lost on Roma coach Fabio Capello, who coached Real Madrid to a Spanish title.

He underlined the pressures on his opposite number: "Del Bosque is the one with a problem in that he has to try to keep a great squad of fantastic players happy.

"The rest of us have no problem when we play Real - if you lose, it is just what people expected and if you win, then it's party time".

When the two sides met in the Champions League 12 months ago, however, it was Real who were uncorking the champagne after a sparkling performance in a 2-1 win in Rome.

All the indicators suggest that Real might well be poised to deliver a repeat "party time" performance this evening.

For a start, Roma are without three first-choice players in Francesco Totti, Gabriel Batistuta and Brazilian midfielder Lima, all suspended following the bout of fisticuffs that marred the end of Roma's 1-1 draw with Galatasaray in a Champions League game in Rome last March.

For good measure, Capello is also suspended and will thus be watching from the grandstand.

Arguably even more important considerations concern Roma's questionable state of fitness, partly due to the delayed Serie A start, and their less than impressive recent form as illustrated in a 2-1 defeat away to Bologna when Serie A finally got under way last Saturday.

Roma also come into this season with an almost unchanged squad after a low-key transfer campaign.

For their part, Real have the luxury of leaving Ronaldo at home in Madrid and still field a side that, on paper at least, strikes fear.

Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo will be joined in midfield by Claude Makelele and the latest star on the Real horizon, 22-year-old Argentinian Estéban Cambiasso. In attack, Raul will be partnered by either Fernando Morientes or Guti.

It could be argued that in a group which also includes Belgian champions Genk and Greek side AEK Athens, a defeat for either Roma or Real will matter little since these will be the two sides to qualify in the end.

However, the guaranteed 70,000-plus full house at the Olympic Stadium would suggest that the Roma fans see things differently.