LONDON — It is unlikely that there is a more loathesome player in European football than Sinisa Mihajlovic, the Lazio defender.

Christopher Davies

Football has been littered with hatchet men over the years, the so-called hard men who set out to “get” opponents, but the Serbia and Montenegro international is surely the worst of them all.

Three years ago he became one of the few players ever to be officially found guilty of racism by UEFA, after calling Patrick Vieira of Arsenal a “black monkey,” and was banned for two matches.

Mihajlovic, who wrote an obituary to indicted war criminal Arkan (Zelijko Raznatovic) in a Belgrade newspaper when the murderer was himself murdered, apologized for his despicable act toward Vieira, though there was a hollowness about his sorrow.

Last Tuesday, as Lazio lost 4-0 in the Champions League, Mihajlovic was up to his revolting tricks again when he spat in the face of Chelsea’s Adrian Mutu, which many consider the foulest act a footballer can perform.

When the AIDS epidemic broke out, FIFA included spitting in the laws of the game as a specific offense under violent conduct, effectively making it striking an opponent.

Mihajlovic had initially kicked Mutu as the Romanian was on the ground after being fouled by the Lazio defender. A few minutes later, as they challenged for a high ball, Mutu’s errant elbow caught Mihajlovic in a hardly excessively violent act of retribution.

The response of Mihajlovic was to give Mutu the most unacceptable type of mouthful which was missed by the referee, whose attention was elsewhere, but vividly caught on camera which will be studied by UEFA.

Last season, European football’s ruling body suspended Peter Luccin of Celta Vigo for four games for spitting and Mihajlovic can expect at least the same if found guilty. More immediate punishment came when the spitting Serb was sent off for two cautionable offenses on Damien Duff.

Roberto Mancini, the Lazio coach, criticized Mihajlovic, apologized on behalf of his club and said the player faces a ban, but his worthy sentiments were somewhat spoiled when he added: “He’s a very nice man who doesn’t usually do this sort of thing.”

One would not like to meet someone whom Mancini considers a nasty character.

Mancini tried to explain Mihajlovic’s spitting by suggesting the player was nervous. I have no doubt heads of state, singers, actors or, in fact, many people from all walks of life suffer from nerves at times, but thankfully their response is not to spit on the person nearest to them.

AT THE OPPOSITE END of the social scale is Claudio Ranieri, the Chelsea manager with the ready smile, contagious sense of humor and engaging English.

His return to the city of his birth (Rome) could hardly have gone better and for the first time since its £110 million summer makeover, Chelsea looked like the dream team Roman Abramovich’s huge investment should guarantee.

Chelsea had almost done the bare minimum — before lashing Lazio — with eight of its 10 wins by a single goal. Ranieri and the players openly admitted they should be doing better and in the Eternal City the Blues suddenly found the style they had shown only intermittently.

Rarely a week has passed without a story that England’s Sven-Goran Eriksson (who, incidentally, took Mihajlovic to Lazio when the Swede was the coach) was about to replace Ranieri or had signed a pre-contract to join Chelsea.

Through it all, Ranieri laughed and joked, as he does with most things, and the Italian wore the broadest of smiles after Tuesday’s victory which made the rest of Europe sit up and take notice.

The day before the game, Ranieri was asked about his last coaching visit to the Olympic Stadium. He said it was while he was with Fiorentina but couldn’t remember the result — “I can’t remember yesterday,” he said.

The memory loss may have something to do with the fact it was in March 1995, when Fiorentina was thrashed 8-2 by Lazio, Ranieri’s worst defeat as a coach.

Ranieri is unlikely to forget his last visit and the man who grew up supporting Lazio’s rival AS Roma was entitled to say: “I don’t know if it was our best display under me but it was the most satisfying.”

The applause from the 4,000 visiting Chelsea fans was music to Ranieri’s ears. A few miles away from Olympic Stadium is the Coliseum (now incredibly called the Nike Coliseum, I kid you not!) and had the traveling fans been there they would definitely have given the revolting Mihajlovic a Caesar-style thumbs down.

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