Champions League…Inter and Real lead push for early qualification

MILAN, (Reuters) – Inter Milan, Real Madrid and  company will put their faith in attacking football again this  week as Europe’s leading lights seek early qualification for the  Champions League knockout stages.

Seven teams can progress to the last 16 with two matches to  spare after a series of open displays showed that cagey wins and  strategic draws are out of vogue in the group stages of the  world’s elite club competition.

Inter beat Tottenham Hotspur 4-3 at home in a remarkable  Group A game last time, and if the holders beat the English club tomorrow they will go through irrespective of Werder Bremen’s  result against Twente Enschede.

Rafael Benitez’s team was 4-0 up in 35 minutes two weeks ago  before Gareth Bale’s hat-trick for Spurs. And although the Inter  coach will want his injury-hit side to tighten up defensively at  White Hart Lane, there is a sense that attack is now the best  form of defence.
Jose Mourinho was defensive at times last season, when he  led Inter to the Champions League title, but his Real Madrid  side came out all guns blazing at home to AC Milan last month to  record an easy 2-0 win.

The Portuguese could be planning an attacking return to the  San Siro on Wednesday given that Real know a fourth successive  Group G win would put them through to February’s first knockout  round.

The form of Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored two more goals in  Saturday’s 3-1 win at Hercules, is a reason for optimism for the  nine-times winners — as well as Milan’s 2-1 home defeat by  Juventus in Serie A this weekend.

“I’m in great form and having a phenomenal run,” Ronaldo  told reporters.

MAESTRO MESSI

Lionel Messi is having a personal battle with Ronaldo to see  who can light up La Liga the brightest, and the rivalry could  carry through to the Champions League with the Barcelona maestro  looking as dangerous as ever.

Two goals sealed Barca’s home win over FC Copenhagen in  their last Group D game, and the Argentine was prominent again  on Saturday with another brace in the 5-0 humbling of Sevilla.

A victory in the Danish capital tomorrow will herald  Barca’s progression from the group stage, and a possible rest  for Messi in the last two group matches.

Last season’s runners-up, Bayern Munich, were lax in defence  during the 3-2 win over CFR Cluj a fortnight ago, continuing the  overall theme this term, but that result means a top-two finish  in Group E could be assured with a point in Wednesday’s return.

Arsenal, Chelsea and Olympique Lyon also have nine points  from a possible nine, with Arsene Wenger’s side topping the  scoring so far with a whopping 14 goals. Progression awaits this  week for all three if they win, while a draw may suffice for the  French club.

“We have matured,” Wenger said, adding that Cesc Fabregas is  a slight doubt for Wednesday’s Group H game at Shakhtar Donetsk.

“You can see that when it doesn’t work for us, the players  remain calmer than before.”
Group F leaders Chelsea host Spartak Moscow on Wednesday; tomorrow, Group B leaders Lyon travel to Benfica of Portugal.

Manchester United are the only group leaders who will not be  able to seal their last-16 spot this time, but a win at Turkish  champions Bursaspor, who are set to host their biggest ever  match, would go a long way to securing qualification.

United striker Wayne Rooney misses out again with an ankle  injury.

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