LONDON -- During Europe's Internet initial public offering frenzy of the past nine months,

Morgan Stanley Dean Witter

missed out on opportunity after opportunity. Now it is hoping that it can turn its fortunes around by leading the charge for the IPO of the (supposedly) scorching-hot online travel site

lastminute.com

.

This is becoming a big deal for Morgan Stanley, not only because lastminute.com plans to follow British Internet service provider

Freeserve

(FREE)

onto the

Nasdaq

, but also because this IPO is Morgan Stanley's first in Europe. Any hiccups would be a huge blow to the bank's aim to make a name for itself there.

With so much at stake, Morgan Stanley has brought in the big guns, namely the so-called Net Queen, star Internet analyst

Mary Meeker

. Morgan Stanley is hoping Meeker's presence will garner lastminute.com much needed publicity and open many doors in the U.S.

Meeker's reputation comes from an uncanny habit of picking Internet winners, such as

AOL

(AOL)

,

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

,

eBay

(EBAY) - Get Report

and

Amazon

(AMZN) - Get Report

.

She is so pre-eminent in her field that last year she reputedly made $15 million, an astounding sum for an analyst. A few months ago, when rumors circulated that she might defect to a venture capital firm, Morgan Stanley took the unusual step of issuing a very public press release denying her departure.

Morgan Stanley shrugs off the pressure surrounding the deal, but by bringing in Meeker it shows it is taking no chances. Insiders say that when banks were pitching for the deal back in September, Morgan Stanley promised the founders of lastminute.com, Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman, that Meeker would personally oversee the deal.

Some of Morgan Stanley's rivals are being complimentary, at least in public, about the IPO. "It will be a great offering," says an investment banker at

Credit Suisse First Boston

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, the bank which has led most of the key Internet IPOs in Europe so far, such as

QXL.com

(QXLC)

,

freecom.net

and Freeserve.

Others are not quite so kind.

"This is just a 400 million pound ($640 million) IPO for a U.K. travel company

and Morgan Stanley is sweating over it, " scoffed an investment banker at

Goldman Sachs

, who unsurprisingly didn't want to be named. "The pricing range is a moving feast, and the delay in the prospectus is so Morgan can present the figures in the best light possible. This deal is becoming Mary Meeker Dot-com."

A top executive close to the deal rejected this suggestion. "This is not about Mary Meeker. This is about lastminute.com," he said.

Quite. Lost in all this sniping about presentation is the issue of the company itself. Founded in April 1998, lastminute.com offers late deals over the Internet for flights, holidays and entertainment to impulse buyers who shop at the eleventh hour in the U.K., France, Sweden and Germany.

Lastminute.com announced Wednesday it plans to sell 33 million new shares at 190-230p, valuing the company at 316 million pounds based on the midprice. The retail offer opens on Thursday and the price will be announced on March 14 when conditional trading begins. Unconditional trading is expected to begin on March 21.

The company has made a number of shrewd strategic partnerships with heavyweights such as

Sony Music

,

Starwood Hotels

(HOT)

and

Intel

(INTC) - Get Report

. On Tuesday,

MMXI Europe,

one of the biggest agencies monitoring Internet usage, released figures that showed lastminute.com was one of the U.K.'s most visited travel Web sites in January, with 310,000 Britons, or 4% of the active online population, visiting the site.

Needless to say, lastminute.com has its skeptics. The company is awash in red ink. Although in the three months before the end of December 1999 the company had 409,000 pounds in revenue -- more than double what it made in the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 1999 if the last quarter's results are annualized, the offering values lastminute.com at 193 times revenue.

Also, MMXI says lastminute.com's rival

Expedia.co.uk

grew faster in January with a 261% increase in site visits in January to 253,000 visitors.

Morgan Stanley is confident that all the critics will be silenced. "The revenue figures will allay any concerns in that direction," says a spokesperson for the bank. "We admit, this deal and its success are very important to us. We expect our U.S. rivals to be hopping mad."

The spokesperson added, somewhat defensively, "At least we have won a deal, which is more than you can say for some people." Yes, but is one deal enough?