Barca, Liverpool facing tough times in Europe

It would normally be unthinkable — but it is just possible that holders Barcelona will become the first winners since the 1993 introduction of the Champions League format not to survive the group stages.

The Catalan club impressively swatted aside Manchester United in last May’s final to win their third continental crown but they have laboured to impress in Group F.

Facing a growing injury crisis, they now host Inter Milan on Tuesday knowing that defeat could let in Russia’s Rubin Kazan, who got an added boost at the weekend as they retained their domestic title.

Unbeaten Inter top the group a point clear of Barca and the Russians.

But the latter took four points off Barcelona — including a stunning success at the Nou Camp — and with both sides on five points with two games to play, it would be the Russian champions who would advance on the head-to-head rule in the event of the teams finishing level.

Tuesday could prove to be a red-letter day for the competition as five-time winners Liverpool are also sitting uncomfortably close to the exit as they look to launch a great escape at Hungary’s Debrecen.

Rafa Benitez’s side have won just one of their four games to date, and with Lyon having already won Group E, Italy’s Fiorentina, who now travel to France, are on the verge of booking their own berth as they currently have a five-point cushion.

Entering their respective last-chance saloons, Barca and Liverpool need as much in their armoury as possible — but a growing injury crisis has run down the Catalan giants’ stocks of ammunition.

The mercurial Lionel Messi faces missing the game after picking up a thigh injury in Saturday’s draw with Athletic Bilbao, while former Inter striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has a leg strain and is highly doubtful.

In addition, central defender Eric Abidal and Yaya Toure are fighting swine flu and Mexican defender Rafael Marquez is also showing symptoms.

Another centre back, Gerard Pique, is also on the injured list.

Losing Ibrahimovic would be a blow at the best of times. But the loss of Messi’s services would be a major headache for coach Pep Guardiola, whose men also have a weekend date to look forward to with Real Madrid, who on Saturday displaced them as league leaders.

”First impressions with Messi are not good,” Guardiola indicated — though Barcelona-based Sport newspaper quoted club medical staff as saying that ”we are not ruling out his playing in Tuesday’s game with Inter”.

With Inter not yet guaranteed passage and with Kazan’s rivals on Tuesday, Dynamo Kiev, only two points behind the Serie A champions despite being bottom of the group, the pressure is on all four teams.

Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia observed on Sunday that the holders are ”living anxiously with two games left”.

That also goes for Liverpool, whose weekend draw with Manchester City made it one win in 10 in all competitions — to leave Benitez and company 13 points behind Premiership pace-setters Chelsea.

Skipper Steven Gerrard, who two years ago was instrumental in dragging the side out of a similar crisis in the group stage after four-goal shows against Porto and in Marseille and an 8-0 win over Besiktas, insists the club will come good

”The mood in the camp is really good. We know our position in the table isn’t good enough,” Gerrard told liverpoolfc.tv. ”But we have faith in our ability.”

Gerrard has endured his own fitness problems this season — but much will depend on the availability of striker Fernando Torres.

He is rated doubtful but fullback Glen Johnson is set to make the date as Benitez, architect of the 2005 ”Miracle of Istanbul”, plots another way out.

Arsenal will go through assuming they see off Standard Liege at the Emirates — having just edged the Belgians away.

The Gunners are four points clear of Olympiakos, who are in action at Dutch outfit Alkmaar over whom the Greeks have a two-point cushion.

Six teams are already through, including Spain’s Sevilla, who travel to unpredictable Romanian debutants Unirea Urziceni.

Sevilla are unbeaten but Unirea are second after taking four points off Scotland’s Rangers, who have had an anaemic, winless campaign.

If Unirea can take something from Tuesday’s game and Rangers and Stuttgart cancel each other out at Ibrox the Romanians will advance unless they lose their last game in Germany. — Sapa-AFP

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