Carrying their impressive autumn form into the UEFA Champions League's second group stage is the challenge for FC Barcelona and Valencia CF, as they prepare to resume their campaigns tonight.
Barça and Valencia were the strongest sides in the first phase, the Catalans taking maximum points from their six matches while the Mestalla side dropped just two. And after Spain's other challengers faltered last night - Real Madrid CF lost at AC Milan and RC Deportivo La Coruña surrendered a two-goal lead and two points against Juventus FC - now is the chance for the peninsula's two Mediterranean teams to reassert the Spanish threat.
Maintaining the momentum
In two of the last three seasons Barcelona emerged as highest points-takers from the first group stage but reached no further than the last four. Michel Platini suggested recently that "the calendar is too heavy for players to be in good condition throughout the year" yet a fine first group stage performance should augur a serious challenge.
Madrid, the eventual winners, were second-best qualifiers this time last year, Valencia among the three best qualifiers 12 months earlier when they went on to the final. Barcelona visit Bayer 04 Leverkusen in Group A aiming to improve on last season's 2-1 defeat at the BayArena. A seventh straight win in this season's competition would end a 16-year wait since they last won in Germany.
Valencia, meanwhile, are at home to AFC Ajax in Group B. Ajax's 2-0 win at Olympique Lyonnais on Matchday 5 was their first in the Champions League since 1997 - and ensured progress from their group for the first time since then. Yet another away win for the Dutch league leaders could be asking a lot against a Valencia side unbeaten at the Mestalla in 20 Champions League games.
Staying in Group B, English Premiership leaders Arsenal FC travel to AS Roma hoping to continue their hosts' unusual discomfort on home soil. Roma collected only two from a possible nine points at the Stadio Olimpico in the first group stage, and have also failed to score a goal in each of their last three home games against English opposition. That said, Arsenal have won just once in Italy in eight attempts, and Roma welcome back Francesco Totti, their top scorer and talisman.
The night's other match is at St James' Park where Newcastle United FC take on Internazionale FC. Newcastle produced an escape act worthy of Houdini in winning their final three first-stage matches to secure qualification behind Juventus FC.
Same again, says Robson
Their manager, Sir Bobby Robson, has called for a performance to match the home win against Juventus that sparked their revival and they can take heart from Inter's record of just one win from ten previous visits to England. On the other hand, the Newcastle defence will have to be alert to cope with the tournament's joint-leading scorer Hernán Crespo, back after missing Saturday's derby defeat.
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