Five hundred fans gathered at Florence airport on Thursday morning to welcome back to Tuscany the conquerors of Anfield. Victory over Liverpool in the Champions League in itself had limited significance to Fiorentina last week, their qualification for the last 16 already assured, but an away win on Merseyside, whatever the circumstances, is still a scarce commodity. The followers of la Viola wanted to roll out a red carpet for their heroes.
The club's European campaign has been nothing short of spectacular so far. Having lost their first group match in the Champions League, in Lyon back in September, Fiorentina responded with courage and style. It was sometimes a rollercoaster ride - with high scores a feature of the campaign - but by Wednesday night, they stood top of the group and can look forward with genuine confidence to the knockout stage of the competition. Being seeded, Fiorentina will avoid the difficult English trio of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, and the Spaniards Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla.
Being Italian, they cannot be drawn against Milan or Inter Milan. So no wonder, when the possible opposition between Fiorentina and a place in the quarter-finals consists of Bayern Munich, Stuttgart, Olympiakos, Porto or CSKA Moscow, that some are looking at them as attractive dark horses for a place in the last four of the European Cup. As an example of what can happen to a club finishing in the top four of Serie A, Fiorentina are inspiring. The history of the club over the last decade has been well documented, but the trials of heavy debt, relegation down two divisions and the climb back up puts into context the achievement of counting themselves among club football's elite 16.
"Legendary" (Gazzetta dello Sport), "Magical" (Tuttosport) were among the headlines on the papers the loyal 500 at the airport were clutching under their arms. "Quite honestly, I didn't think we'd finish up at the top of the group," acknowledges Cesare Prandelli, Fiorentina's admired head coach, still beaming about the drama of the Anfield triumph. It had been another adventure on the high-wire, with Liverpool going a goal up and Alberto Gilardino snatching the winner deep into injury time.
"It shows how we can keep to our game plan and maintain our style, even when we have important players missing." One such, Adrian Mutu, played a big role in the club's earlier successes in Europe's stellar competition. Mutu is a long-term injury absentee, but Prandelli hopes to field the attacking quartet of Gilardino, Stevan Jovetic, Marco Marchionni and Juan Vargas at Chievo today, where Prandelli's focus is on being in the Champions League at the end of 2010 and not just at the beginning of it.
"We deserved to celebrate after working so hard, but now we need all our energy back," he said. Prandelli's club sat fifth in the domestic table at the beginning of the weekend, a point behind Parma, and a crucial spot below where they finished 2008/09 and, as Prandelli is well aware, already in something of a bottleneck in the chase for a top four spot, and with that, Champions League participation next season.
No fewer than four clubs were locked yesterday morning on 24 points in Serie A: Fiorentina, joined by Roma, Genoa and Sampdoria. All of them will have looked at what Fiorentina managed in midweek with ambition and envy. Genoa came close to qualifying for the Champions League last season and they go to the capital today to play Lazio confident that they can strengthen their top-four credentials against a side wretchedly short of form. The traffic jam in the league's upper-mid-table may also be loosened this evening, when Roma, resurgent again though still brittle, go to Sampdoria, whose autumn momentum is rapidly fading. Still, that fixture should not want for motivational power.
The Samp head coach Gigi del Neri was once employed by Roma, as, famously, was Sampdoria's most talented footballer, Antonio Cassano. They know that the prize of fourth spot makes it legitimate to talk about tonight's match as a genuine six-pointer. email@example.com Chievo v Fiorentina, KO 6pm, Aljazeera Sport + 7