Half and half in Champions chase

Real and Barça sitting pretty in Europe as Villarreal and Valencia play catch-up

At the culmination of the first half of the Champions League group stage, things are by no means conclusive with nine points still in play, but two of Spain's participants in the competition have at least one foot in the knock-out phase while two others have found their summer transfer business something of an Achilles' heel in Europe's premier club tournament.

Real Madrid's emphatic 4-0 victory over Lyon at the Bernabéu saw José Mourinho's team ease into a five-point lead in Group D, which means a single point in the return match against the French side would be sufficient to progress. Karim Benzema, Sami Khedira and Sergio Ramos provided the goals, with Lyon keeper Hugo Lloris fumbling one into his own net. Dynamo Zagreb is rooted to the bottom without a single goal for its efforts and Lyon and Ajax have four points apiece.

"From the first minute I thought we were going to win this game," said Mourinho, who was back in the dugout after completing a touchline ban, after the match. "Qualification is practically assured and now it is important to secure first place, because in theory this gives you an advantage."

Before the encounter, Lyon coach Remi Garde said he believed Real was the favorite to lift the trophy in Munich next May and it certainly appears that Mourinho's record of second-season success at the clubs he has coached looks set to continue in some form this year. His squad has been rejuvenated by the return to form of Kaká, the return to health of Gonzalo Higuaín and a more complete playing style than Real displayed last season. Against Lyon the side completed 741 passes, an indication that its counter-attacking proclivities will not be deployed as a matter of course this year, at least not against teams with the limited attacking enthusiasm of Lyon.

Barcelona, for example, will present a different challenge when the first clásico of the season arrives in December. The masters of possession play restricted Viktoria Plzen to just 25 percent of the ball, a paucity that played a large part in the Czech side's failure to muster a single shot on goal. Barça managed 18 of its own, but only four on target in a frustrating night for Leo Messi, who was denied several times by the visitor's desperate rearguard action. Andrés Iniesta, back to his beguiling best after an injury, scored the opener and David Villa embellished the result late on.

The dearth of competition in Group H will likely see Milan and Barça contest the top spot in Italy next month. Both teams sit on seven points to BATE Borisov and Plzen's one.

For Valencia and Villarreal, both regular participants in the latter stages of the tournament over the last decade, qualification is an altogether more onerous task after their squads were depleted by high-profile departures during the summer.

Villarreal requires nothing short of a miracle to escape from Group A, the trickiest in the competition, after a last-gasp Sergio Agüero effort denied the Yellow Submarine its first point in this year's tournament at the City of Manchester Stadium. The only ray of light for Juan Carlos Garrido's side is that two of their last three matches are at El Madrigal. The other side of the coin is that its opponents in those two games are big-spending City and Napoli, which is second in the group. Sandwiched between is a trip to Munich to face Bayern. Even if Villarreal wins its final three games, two of its rivals can still mathematically exceed their points total but, cold comfort indeed, Garrido's side would snatch third place and a Europa League spot.

Valencia also faces an uphill struggle in Group E, with Chelsea and Bayer Leverkusen in clear control. Unai Emery's side was beaten 2-1 in the BayArena and must take points from the German side at Mestalla to have any chance of reaching the next phase. "It is now harder to qualify from the group but we have to remain optimistic. It is difficult, but there it is. We now have to beat them at home," said Emery, who will hope Chelsea does his team a good turn when it travels to Leverkusen in the penultimate match.

Benzema wheels away after opening the scoring for Real against Lyon.
Benzema wheels away after opening the scoring for Real against Lyon.ALBERTO MARTÍN (EFE)
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