Auxerre hope pizza prize is merely hors d'oeuvres

PARIS - Auxerre's players were rewarded for their season's endeavours with pizza from coach Jean Fernandez ahead of their final Ligue 1 match, yet the small town club hope the gesture was merely the hors d'oeuvres.

For Auxerre, a club in a town of just 45,000 people, stand within tantalising reach of next season's Champions League and the smorgasbord of financial riches and big-name clubs that go with it.

Fernandez was voted Ligue 1's best coach by fellow managers on Sunday as the Burgundy side lie fourth on 68 points, one behind Olympique Lyon who hold the only Champions League playoff qualification spot in Ligue 1.

"A coach is nothing without the backing of his players. That's what he told us. He thanked us and congratulated us in the locker room and said his prize was ours," Auxerre goalkeeper Olivier Sorin told Reuters.

"He offered us a pizza with a tiramisu for lunch on Wednesday so we were a bit late for training afterwards. (His prize) puts his great work in the spotlight," he added.

Auxerre, who were crowned champions once in 1996, could even grab an automatic qualification for the European elite competition if they win at Sochaux and both Lyon, who host already-relegated Le Mans, and second-placed Lille, who visit Lorient, lose.

Lille are second on 70 points, five behind newly crowned champions Olympique Marseille.

"Our fate is not in our hands anymore especially as Lyon beat Monaco on Wednesday. I can't imagine Lyon losing to Le Mans on the last day.

"Let's hope Lorient will win against Lille. Then we'll have to get a good result at Sochaux so it's going to be a bit tricky," Sorin said.

If they miss a Champions League berth, Auxerre are certain to play the Europa League next season.

"It's the icing on the cake but let's have a lot of icing," Sorin said.

"Some big clubs have lots of money but you have to deliver on the pitch. Nobody staked just a cent on us at the start of the season... and we played a great trick to everybody by qualifying for a European Cup," he added.

Lyon chairman Jean-Michel Aulas was fuming after his side's 2-2 draw at Valenciennes last weekend. He said the referee could cost the former champions 20 million euros by refusing to award a penalty.

The decision dented Lyon's Champions League hopes, which they revived by crushing Monaco 3-0 on Wednesday.

"This win was a great relief," Bosnia playmaker Miralem Pjanic told reporters.

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