Football: CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE: Ferguson wary of Trapattoni's trap

Manchester United manager comes up against Italy's master tactician in Florence tonight
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AS THE birthplace of Machiavelli, Florence was an appropriate place for Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and other "soft left" politicians to discuss the compromises inherent in pursuing liberal ends with conservative means but it was clearly an oversight to leave town so early.

Had the Third Way summit extended another couple of days the vaunted leaders could have seen a prime example of how political compromise can result in a pan-European economic success with popular appeal.

In Florence this evening the Champions' League will resume with the second stage of its expanded programme. As in Berlin, Prague and Valencia tonight, and London, Marseilles, Kiev and Trondheim tomorrow, full houses, and vast television audiences, will enjoy football of the highest quality.

Created by Uefa to forestall a breakaway superleague, the new format has generally been a success. While it was always likely to make money it has also maintained its attractiveness, mainly because there have been many good matches. Unexpectedly it has also suffered only limited criticism on moral grounds.

This is partly because, surprisingly, it has not accelerated the dominance of a few super-rich clubs and nations. Instead teams like Rosenborg of Trondheim and Sparta Prague have benefited the most from receiving a share of the huge wealth generated by western European television companies and sponsors. This may have upset the balance in their domestic leagues but it has enabled them to compete with the likes of Milan and Borussia Dortmund, neither of whom made it to this stage.

While it is unlikely that either of those teams will win this competition, they are guaranteed to stay in it until 22 March, when this stage ends. Beyond then the favourites remain Lazio, despite their weekend humbling by Roma, Barcelona and Manchester United.

The holders resume their campaign against Fiorentina in the Artemio Franchi Stadio Comunale tonight. While they are favoured, especially as Fiorentina were lucky to hold Arsenal here and are struggling in Serie A, Sir Alex Ferguson is wary.

This is partly because Fiorentina's attack is led by Gabriel Batistuta, a player he long coveted, but also because they are coached by Giovanni Trapattoni. "Trap" is a legend, even by Sir Alex's standards. One of only three men to have won the European Cup as a player and a manager (the others are Miguel Munoz and Johan Cruyff), he also coached teams to seven Serie A titles, a Bundesliga championship, and a string of world, European and domestic cups.

Marcello Lippi, the respected Internazionale coach, recently described the 60-year-old as "the master, the man my generation of coaches look up to in terms of technique, professionalism, wisdom and tactics".

Lippi, who, like Trapattoni, steered Juventus to European Cup success, added: "He is probably one of the most important figures in football ever."

That makes him a worthy adversary for Sir Alex, who said approvingly: "He is an old-style, hands-on coach but he is also one of the innovators of change. He was one of the first to do the pressing game in Italy, Lippi and [Fabio] Capello followed. His offer to resign [before the Arsenal game at Wembley, which Fiorentina won] was clever, it was good motivation."

Trapattoni was equally complimentary of Ferguson, who was starting out at East Stirling when he was making his way at Milan before winning everything at Juventus.

"He has done a fantastic job, he has created a style where he can change players, as in last year's European final, but the team plays the same way. Yet they are not predictable because players like Ryan Giggs and David Beckham out wide, and Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke up front, have that element of fantasy about their play."

So, could they play in Italy? "In Italian football at the moment there are no players like Giggs and Beckham. I would like to have players with these characteristics in my team and in Italy. Here there has been more emphasis on developing players in central positions."

While both are cherished by other coaches in Italy, Roy Keane is more likely to move and Trapattoni added: "It is not a question of age, it is how mature a player is. Two years ago I went to Germany [to manage Bayern Munich] and found how difficult it can be to change your life. I played with Jimmy Greaves [at Milan]. As a player he had no problems here, he played very well and scored goals. Keane has the strong personality to be able to play anywhere in the world, he is always a presence in midfield - I need a player like him."

Poor Trapattoni, it sounds as if he has nobody in his team. But he has five previous European Cup winners in the squad plus Batistuta, the Portuguese playmaker Rui Costa and the Czech defender Thomas Repka. "They don't have the organisation of Manchester United," Lippi said, "but can win almost anything because of the brilliance of their individuals."

Having threatened to win Serie A last season - they were top this time last year - he spent more than pounds 20m in the summer but it has not gone to plan. While United are top of the Premiership and have won five matches on the trot, Fiorentina are in the lower half of Serie A and had not won a league game for two months until the weekend.

However, they have won more matches in Europe than domestically and Trapattoni added: "My team rise to the big occasion, especially the Latin players, they need a big stage."

Both teams, inevitably, have injury concerns. Sir Alex may risk the fitness of Gary Neville but not Mark Bosnich who has a knee problem. Trapattoni may take a chance on Moreno Torricelli who, like Neville, returned on Saturday, but not his pounds 9m signing Enrico Chiesa. Predrag Mijatovic is definitely absent: his heel requires surgery.

Ferguson and Trapattoni met in their playing days. With the Scot being a physical striker, and the Italian a noted man-marker, it must have been a bruising confrontation. Football, like politics, is now a superficially cleaner product but while tonight's match will be more attractive, it will be just as competitive.

Fiorentina (probable; 3-5-2): Toldo; Repka, Firicano, Pierini; Torricelli, Di Livio, Cois, Heinrich; Rui Costa; Batistuta, Balbao.

Manchester United (probable; 4-4-2): Van der Gouw; G Neville, Berg, Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs; Yorke, Cole.

Referee: B Heynemann (Germany).