Lyons are on song for Europe bid

Lopez has given French club flying start to season despite loss of star players
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The Independent Football

Competing in the Champions League for a 10th consecutive season, Lyons are hoping to maintain their excellent start to the season when they open their campaign against Fiorentina tonight in the same group as Liverpool, who host Hungary's Debrecen.

Lyons, who routed Anderlecht 8-2 on aggregate to qualify for the group stage, are hosting the Italian team at Stade Gerland for the second consecutive year. After falling two goals behind at home last season, the French club finally secured a 2-2 draw thanks to strikes from Frédéric Piquionne and Karim Benzema, who left the club during the summer – for Portsmouth and Real Madrid respectively – along with their set-piece expert Juninho.

Those departures were expected to derail the club's ambitions but Lyons coach, Claude Puel, cleverly reshuffled his team by signing the Argentina striker Lisandro Lopez from Porto and France forward Bafétimbi Gomis from rivals St Etienne, while recruiting the Lille midfielder Michel Bastos.

The three quickly adapted and are now considered as unquestionable starters in a team unbeaten in seven games so far this season. The powerful Lopez has already scored six times while Bastos has three goals in seven games. The Brazilian's late header gave Lyons a 1-0 win over Lorient last weekend.

"For some [players], last season was about learning," said Puel, who was criticised for his defensive style of play after the club missed out on an eighth consecutive French League title. "Today, we have become more fluid and our offensive potential is better."

Following the disappointment of their Champions League elimination to Barcelona in the first knockout round last season, Lyons failed to recover and were dethroned by Bordeaux in France, prompting the club president, Jean-Michel Aulas, to say that the League would be his team's priority this year.

But Lyons have reached the knockout round of the European Cup in each of their last six campaigns and anything else than that would be considered a failure. "The goal? It is to qualify for the knockout stages," Puel admitted. "No team plays this competition by claiming it will win it."

Puel will be without France and former Newcastle defender Jean-Alain Boumsong, who is out for a month with a groin injury. Lopez, who came back from his international duties with Argentina slightly injured, is expected to be back in the team along with defender Mathieu Bodmer, who has recovered from an ankle injury.

Fiorentina hope to get through the initial group stage of the tournament for the first time in 10 years. Unbeaten this season, the Italian team will again count on striker Alberto Gilardino, who scored three goals against Lyons last year. Still hampered by a thigh injury, the former Chelsea player Adrian Mutu is doubtful after being rested in Fiorentina's 1-0 win over Cagliari, while midfielder Cristiano Zanetti is suspended.

In Arsenal's group, Olympiakos go into their opener against AZ Alkmaar having sacked manager Temuri Ketsbaia as coach yesterday. The 41-year-old former Georgia international and Newcastle player was dismissed just four months after he was appointed and after just three league games of the new season. Olympiakos have yet to concede a goal in their opening three league fixtures and have taken seven points from a possible nine, but fan disquiet and reports of dressing-room disputes have been enough to earn Ketsbaia the sack. Ketsbaia had only been recruited in May after an impressive spell in charge of Anorthosis Famagusta, during which he masterminded the elimination of Olympiakos from the Champions League play-offs.

Bozidar Bandovic, who takes over and has been promoted from the youth team, will send his new charges out against an AZ Alkmaar side who edged out the Netherlands' big three of Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord to win the Eredivisie title. However, that was under Louis van Gaal who has since been recruited by Bayern Munich, with Ronald Koeman, another Ajax old boy, stepping into his shoes.

Results have been mixed under Koeman and AZ go into the Group H opener on the back of a surprising 2-1 defeat to Den Haag.