Inflation in the euro area fell to an annual rate of 8.5% in January from 9.2% in December, according to an initial estimate from Eurostat.

Energy inflation fell to an annual rate of 17.2% from 25.5% in December. But food inflation increased from 13.8% to 14.1%.

Core inflation, which strips out the effect of food and energy, held steady at an annual rate of 5.2% and was down by 0.8% in the month, today's figures show.

Ireland's inflation estimate for January was 7.7%, according to figures published by the CSO yesterday.

There was no inflation estimate for Germany for last month. It has been delayed for "technical reasons", according to its national statistical agency.

The slowdown in euro zone inflation in January marked the third month of decreases in a row, but relief may be limited as underlying price growth held steady and concerns have already been raised about the reliability of the figures.

Euro zone price growth has been in rapid decline since peaking at a record 10.6% in October.

But the European Central Bank has already promised more rate hikes, fearing that without higher borrowing costs, inflation could get entrenched above its 2% target.

Meeting tomorrow, the bank is all but certain to raise rates by a half a percentage point to 2.5% and the biggest question is just how much more tightening it will signal.

The headline inflation drop is unlikely to expunge concerns among conservative policymakers that rapid price growth is getting entrenched, a worry reinforced by poor underlying inflation data today.

Excluding food and fuel prices, inflation picked up to 7% from 6.9% while an even narrower measure watched closely by the ECB, held steady at 5.2%, exceeding forecasts for 5.1%.

Underlying inflation was driven by a jump in processed food and industrial goods prices but services inflation eased a touch.

January figures are also prone to unusual volatility because of start-of-the-year price changes, economists says.

Conservative policymakers are likely to argue that a milder-than-expected economic downturn will mean a smaller increase in unemployment, so wages will remain under upward pressure and force the ECB to raise rates even more.

Indeed, unemployment held steady at 6.6% in December, its lowest rate on record, separate data showed today.

They are also likely to say that core inflation is at risk of getting stuck well above the ECB's 2% target as the second round effects of high energy prices feed through, potentially leading to a self-reinforcing inflation.

Markets now expect ECB rates to peak at 3.5%, the highest rate in over 20 years, suggesting another 100 basis points of hikes after tomorrow's move.

Policy doves from the bloc's south are likely to fight back, however, arguing that the economy has already started to respond and a bit more time is needed for past policy moves to take effect.

Indeed, bank lending is set for its biggest drop since the bloc's 2011 debt crisis, Germany and Italy recorded negative growth last quarter and an exceptionally mild winter, not some unpredicted resilience, accounted for better growth figures last quarter.

Additional reporting from Reuters