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Barcelona and Milan on the ropes
by Paul Kennedy, March 7th, 2011 8:59PM
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TAGS:  england, germany, italy, spain, uefa champions league


[EUROPE TOP 10] Just how competitive it is in Europe this season is evident in the Champions League, where Barcelona and AC Milan, the leaders in Spain and Italy by comfortable margins, trail heading into the second leg of their UEFA Champions League series this week against Arsenal and Tottenham, respectively. For the latest Soccer America rankings ...

1. Barcelona. Since losing to Arsenal in the first leg of their Champions League series, Barca has run off four straight wins, all tame results by its standards -- 2-1, 3-0, 1-0 and 1-0 -- but enough to open up a seven-point lead on second-place Real Madrid. Barca will be without the central defensive duo Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique for Tuesday's second leg against Arsenal. Coach Pep Guardiola will be on the sidelines, but he is suffering from a herniated disc.

2. Real Madrid. Real Madrid's 1-1 tie at Lyon in the first leg of their Champions League series was better than it's done at the Stade Gerland in recent years. The away goal puts the Merengues in good stead to end their streak of six straight exits in the round of 16. Karim Benzema, who scored in Lyons, had two goals in Real Madrid's 3-1 win over Racing Santander on Sunday. It was the first league game the injured Cristiano Ronaldo has missed this season.

3. Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund's first win at Bayern Munich since 1991 10 days ago all but ended the suspense in the Bundesliga. It has a 12-point lead over second-place Bayer Leverkusen, and Bayern is a distant fifth, 19 points off the pace. Dortmund's 1-0 win over FC Cologne over the weekend was notable for the presence of scouts from Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, who were at Signal Iduna Park to see former U.S. U-17 defender Neven Subotic, who could move next summer for a transfer fee of more than $30 million.

4. AC Milan. Gennaro Gattuso scored his first goal for Milan in three years to give the Rossoneri a 1-0 win at Juventus that left them with a five-point advantage over Inter Milan at the top of Serie A. Milan's defense didn't allow Juve a single shot on goal. It will need another strong performance on Wednesday as it travels to White Hart Lane, where it must make up a 1-0 deficit against Tottenham in the Champions League.

5. Manchester United. Two defeats in five days -- 2-1 at Chelsea and 3-1 at Liverpool -- ended any idea that United would stroll to its 19th title. The results left United just three points ahead of Arsenal in the EPL. Against Liverpool, United needed a stoppage-time goal from Mexican Javier Hernandez to make the score respectable. Without Nemanja Vidic (suspended) and Rio Ferdinand (injured), the United backline looked very shaky. Manager Alex Ferguson was so furious he ordered a media blackout that applied to everyone at the club and even included the club web site, MUTV.

6. Arsenal. The Gunners got good news when Robin van Persie, who scored the first goal in the 2-1 win over Barcelona, was cleared to travel with the team to Barcelona for Tuesday's second leg in their Champions League series. Only last week, van Persie had been ruled out by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger for up to a month with a knee injury. "He's made quick progress in the last three days," Wenger said from Barcelona. "When I spoke to you this morning, it was very unlikely for him to travel, but then his test this morning was quite positive." The Dutchman's importance to Arsenal was evident in its costly 0-0 tie against Sunderland on Saturday. A win would have left it one point off the lead in the EPL with a game in hand.

7. Manchester City. After five straight games at home -- four wins and a tie -- City heads back on the road Thursday to face Dynamo Kiev in the first leg of their Europa League round-of-16 series. Off the field, Kolo Toure made headlines when he failed a drug test. The Ivorian defender has been banned by City from playing with the first team while his case makes its way through the legal system. He was reported to have taken a diet pill given to him by his wife. Toure's loss could be a costly blow for City, which lies third in the EPL and must fight off challenges from Chelsea and Tottenham for one of the four EPL berths in next season's Champions League.

8. Valencia. Valencia has won its last three away games -- all 2-1 La Liga victories -- and will need another winning effort on the road when it faces German club Schalke 04 Wednesday in the Champions League. It went into the series favored but had to settle for a 1-1 tie at home in the first leg.

9. Chelsea. Since exiting from the FA Cup against Everton, the Blues have run off three straight wins to end the talk of Carlo Ancelotti's impending departure from Stamford Bridge. Chelsea's 2-0 win at FC Copenhagen leaves it all but assured of returning to the final eight of the Champions League after its 2010 round-of-16 defeat to eventual champion Inter Milan.

10. Tottenham. Spurs holds a 1-0 advantage going into the second leg of its Champions League series against AC Milan, but its manager, Harry Redknapp, isn't thinking of playing a tie. "When you have that advantage in a two-legged game, if you sit back and think you have the lead then you find yourself in trouble," Redknapp said. "We have to treat it as a one-off and we have to go for it. We're at home and we have to go and try to win the game. It's not natural for us to sit on a 1-0 lead for 90 minutes." Jermain Defoe broke out of a season-long slump with his first two EPL goals of the campaign against Wolves, but Spurs had to settle for a 3-3 tie that left it fifth place, three points behind Chelsea.

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