THE first wave of an expected 35,000-strong army of Liverpool FC fans arrived in Istanbul yesterday in preparation for tomorrow night's Champions League final.

Four flights took off from John Lennon Airport and landed at the little-used Sabiha Gokcen military airstrip, well over an hour from the city, after the larger Ataturk terminal was assigned to supporters of Italian opponents AC Milan.

The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent his message of welcome to the travelling fans who will find a city bursting with pride at hosting the most prestigious club football match in the world.

Fears about what sort of welcome the Liverpool fans could expect in this city - where two Leeds United fans were killed in 2000 - appear unfounded at this stage.

The Turks seem determined to be remembered for their hospitality and are clearly relishing the opportunity to showcase their city, hosting its first ever major sporting final, to the rest of Europe.

"Liverpool, Liverpool" cry the stall holders in the bustling bazaars, the restaurateurs and the street shoe shiners, admittedly possibly with half an eye on what could be their most lucrative week of trading ever.

The shops are offering special Cup Final rates on their colourful wares, the Champions League branding is everywhere, and some of the more tourist-orientated bars are offering special "Scouse parties" on nights running up to the game.

Some fans may feel they have barely left Mathew Street when they run into the Beatles Cafe in the centre of town or the James Joyce bar where many are expected to congregate.

Last night, hundreds of Liverpool fans took over bars and cafés in and around Taksim Square, singing their songs, displaying their banners, and mixing freeely with their Turkish hosts, who appeared both delighted and amused by the spectacle. "I'd walk a million miles for one of your goals," the old footballing song goes, but Liverpool fans are leaving even that well behind in their efforts to reach this, the 50th European Cup final.

With Istanbul around 1,300 miles away as the crow flies, between them Liverpool fans are likely to travel more than 45m miles to reach this game.

Few sporting events can ever have attracted such an extraordinary exodus. And the locals could not be happier to be welcoming them, many able to reel off the names of LFC legends of years ago, never mind today's squad.

Hotel worker Ikban Bucogoglu, 33, said: "For many people in Turkey, Liverpool FC is their second team. My father is one. We know all about their history, about Dalglish, about Keegan, about how great their history is.

"Of course we know the last 20 years have not been so good but Liverpool will have a lot of support here.

"Yes, we have had trouble before with Leeds and Manchester United but we do not feel this with Liverpool."

Turkish authorities will be mounting a major security operation to make sure that it continues that way and the city has been divided into two halves, the Asian and the European sides, with Liverpool fans being concentrated in the Asian side.

But the message that is being heard more than any other is one of friendship.

Mike Roberts, 38, who had travelled with two friends from Wavertree for the game, said: "Of course everyone was concerned about having to travel so far and the cost of getting here.

"But the city is absolutely spectacular and the welcome has been as good as we've had anywhere. Last night we were talking to Turkish fans about Gordon Milne, the ex-Liverpool player who came out here to manage Besiktas in the 80s. They really know their football and they know an awful lot about Liverpool."

Thousands more fans will arrive on the banks of the Bosphorus today, with 10 charters setting off from JLA alone, with another 14 following tomorrow morning.

Liverpool fans are expected to outnumber those from Milan, who sent back 2,000 of their 20,000 ticket allocation from UEFA.

Chris Keeley, spokesman for the British consul in Istanbul, said: "The first flights arrived at 3pm today and everything is going well.

"We do not know exactly how many Liverpool fans are coming but it will be well over the 20,000 tickets they were allocated."

The black market in Turkey was always likely to be a hotbed of illegal ticket sales after 7,500 tickets for the final were put on sale to local supporters.

The Daily Post was yesterday offered a ticket for the match by a café owner who claimed that he was able to get as many as we wanted. The man, who called himself just Ali, said: "A ticket for the match will be 300 Turkish lira." (around £130).

Though representing at least a 100% mark-up on the ticket's true cost, it is far less expensive than the tickets being sold on websites elsewhere for around the £400 mark.