war in the city of love

LONDON - Arsenal, Lyon and Stuttgart already have one foot in the lucrative group phase of the Champions League and Atletico Madrid took a useful 3-2 lead into last night's clash with Panathinaikos.

LONDON - Arsenal, Lyon and Stuttgart already have one foot in the lucrative group phase of the Champions League and Atletico Madrid took a useful 3-2 lead into last night's clash with Panathinaikos.

But Fiorentina and Sporting Lisbon are level at 2-2 from the first leg in Portugal and both teams, who last won a European competition back in the early 1960s, have everything to play for when they meet in Florence today.

Fiorentina, who were fourth in last season's Italian championship, have struggled to keep pace with the traditional Serie A title contenders such as Juventus, Inter and AC Milan and last won the title in 1969. They were runners-up in the old European Cup in 1957 and their only European triumph was in the 1961 Cup Winners Cup.

Sporting are 18-time winners of the Portuguese league but their only European success was the 1964 Cup Winners Cup.

Now these two underachievers have a chance to make a mark in European football's most prestigious club competition but only one can get there.

The playoff losers have the consolation of dropping into the next round of the Europa League - the new format for the UEFA Cup - while the winners will be in tomorrow's draw for the group phase of the Champions League in Monte Carlo.

Among those already there are the likes of defending champions Barcelona, big-spending Real Madrid, powerhouse English teams Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, Italy's Inter Milan, Juventus and AC Milan and Bayern Munich of Germany, all of them among the favourites to win the coveted title.

Getting to the group phase, however, guarantees at least six matches with the ticket sales and TV revenue that comes with them, and with the tantalising possibility of reaching the knockout phase and dreams of a place in the May 22 final in Madrid.

After beating Celtic 2-0 in Glasgow, Arsenal will be confident of reaching the group phase for the 12th time in a row.

Manager Arsene Wenger is already certain he won't have team captain Cesc Fabregas for the return leg at the Emirates Stadium tonight because of a hamstring injury he picked up in Saturday's 4-1 victory over Portsmouth.

Celtic's 5-2 victory over St Johnstone on Saturday lifted the team to the top of the Scottish Premier League standings and midfielder Shaun Maloney is confident the team can overcome the home leg deficit in the same way it knocked out Dynamo Moscow in the previous round.

Stuttgart are at home to Romania's Politehnica Timisoara today and are already 2-0 ahead.

Greek champions Olympiakos are 2-0 up on Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova and just need to avoid losing by more than 1-0 at home.

Apoel Nicosia bid to overcome a 1-0 deficit at home to FC Copenhagen. - Sapa-AP

X