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No. 1 Barcelona put to the test
by Paul Kennedy, February 15th, 2011 12:34AM

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TAGS:  england, germany, italy, spain, uefa champions league


[EUROPE TOP 10] Action in the UEFA Champions League resumes this week with the first four games in the round of 16. It includes Barcelona, first in the latest Soccer America rankings, in action against No. 6 Arsenal on Wednesday, and No. 5 AC Milan, the Italian leader, against No. 9 Tottenham Tuesday. Red-hot Valencia, No. 8 in the rankings, also plays Tuesday when it hosts Schalke 04.

1. Barcelona. Barcelona ran off 16 straight wins in La Liga before it was held to a 1-1 tie at Sporting Gijon on Saturday. Coach Pep Guardiola, who last week extended his contract for one more season, liked the effort of his players. "It's not easy attacking when you are faced with 10 players behind the ball," he said. That many of his players had midweek international duty was no excuse. "It's not the fault of the national teams," he said. "At Barca, you have to know how to compete every three days and these players have shown they can do it millions of times." Their next test: Arsenal at the Camp Nou.

2. Real Madrid. In any other league, Real Madrid would be running away with the title. But the Merengues have to deal with a certain little thing like it has to play in the same league as Barcelona, which still leads Real Madrid by five points despite its tie on Saturday. Barcelona won the first meeting against Real Madrid, 5-0, in November, but Real Madrid gets at least two more shots at its Catalan rival: April 16 in La Liga and four days later in Copa del Rey final in Valencia. Cristiano Ronaldo is confident Real Madrid can recover. "[Coach Jose] Mourinho knows how to win against them, and we have an idea," he said. "The coach knows what the best strategy to win and I am sure we will win the Cup final."

3. Manchester United. Wayne Rooney's spectacular goal -- described by Alex Ferguson as the best goal ever scored at Old Trafford -- gave United a 2-1 win over Manchester City Saturday and kept it four points ahead of Arsenal -- and eight in front of third-place City, which has played one more game. If United is to go far this season in Europe, it is going to need more production out of Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov on the road, where they have combined for only five goals this season and United has won just three of 12 games. "They have not been as good for us away," says Ferguson, "and it's a quandary for us because they should be dictating games away from home. If they do, it will make a hell of a difference."

4. Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund has a double-digit lead in the Bundesliga, but Coach Juergen Klopp is not satisfied. "We are managing that over small phases," he said before Saturday's 1-1 tie at Kaiserslautern, "but not over 90 minutes. We still have plenty of room for improvement and we are going to try and exploit that in coming games." Young midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who scored eight goals in the first half of the league season, may have been lost for the rest of the season after he broke his foot playing for Japan at the Asian Cup, but Klopp can count on a core of young stars, including former U.S. U-17 and U-20 international Neven Subotic, Kevin Grosskreutz and Pole Robert Lewanowski, all only 22.

5. AC Milan. The Italian leader put on one of its best performances of the season when it crushed Parma, 4-0, on Saturday. Temperamental Antonio Cassano, who arrived from Sampdoria during the winter transfer window when the remaining portion of his contract with Real Madrid was bought out, had one goal and two assists. Ronaldinho left Milan in January, but Coach Massililiano Allegri is loaded up front with Brazilians Robinho and Alexandre Pato, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cassano.

6. Arsenal. The Gunners remain in the hunt for the EPL title -- just barely. Their inconsistency has cost them dearly. Most recently, they blew a 4-0 lead at Newcastle and had to settle for a 4-4 tie. As far as Europe goes, Arsenal faces Barcelona in a repeat of their 2010 Champions League quarterfinal series the Spanish club won 6-3 on aggregate. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says his team can play with Barcelona. "We know from last season's games that what is most important is to play at our level," the Frenchman said. "Barcelona are maybe better this season than last season but so are we." The Gunners have received a boost with the news that Frenchman Samir Nasri should be fit for Wednesday's game at Emirates Stadium.

7. Manchester City. City is all but out of the EPL race after its loss to Manchester United, so its goal will be to preserve one of the four berths in next season's Champions League. "It's very important that we bounce back," City manager Roberto Mancini said. "I don't think we will have a problem mentally, but when you have played so well away from home, when you think you have deserved to win but you lose, it can be very hard. It's important for us that we have a game so quickly and we need to go on a run now." That game comes Tuesday against Greek club Aris in the Europa League.

8. Valencia. Valencia, which hosts German club Schalke 04 Tuesday in the Champions League, is one of the hottest clubs in Europe with seven wins and two ties in its last nine games in La Liga. Roberto Soldado, Aritz Aduriz and Ever Banega have all been in fine form.

9. Tottenham. Spurs, fourth in the Premier League, faces a tough test Tuesday when it meets AC Milan. It will be without young star Gareth Bale, who is nursing a back injury and didn't travel to the San Siro, where he had a hat trick last fall against Inter Milan in the group stage. Peter Crouch has also been bothered by back problems, but he'll be available Tuesday.

10. Napoli. Napoli remained only three points behind Serie A leader when it won, 2-0 against Roma Saturday at Rome's Stadio Olimpico. The win came at a price, though. Argentine Ezequiel Lavezzi and Roma defender Aleandro Rosi were handed three-game bans for spitting at each other. That means Lavezzi will miss the Feb. 28 game against Milan. Napoli should have Uruguayan Edinson Cavani, arguably the best player in Serie A this season with 20 goals.



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