Groups A-D: Plenty to play for
© AFP

The carrot of qualifying for the last 16 of Europe's premier club competition is dangling in front of some of the biggest teams involved in this year's UEFA Champions League. But finishing top of their groups is another incentive enticing the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid ahead of Wednesday's penultimate round of group games.

Of the 16 teams in action, only two, Barcelona and Sporting, have qualified for the lucrative knockout phase. For the teams in the three other groups, things are more open.

Chelsea lead Roma and Bordeaux by just a point in Group A, Cypriot surprise package Anorthosis are hoping to pip Panathinaikos to join virtually qualified Inter Milan from Group B, and Liverpool and Atletico have virtually sealed the top two spots in Group D.

With ten points from four games, Barcelona need only a draw away to Sporting to retain the lead in Group C ahead of their final group game at home to Shakhtar Donetsk on 9 December. Pep Guardiola's Barcelona beat Sporting 3-1 in their opening group fixture, but the possible absence of injured Argentine Lionel Messi and Barcelona's unexpected 1-1 league draw at home to Getafe may have given hope to Sporting.

While Shakhtar host FC Basel hoping to hold on to third place and a UEFA Cup spot, Guardiola says he can cope with losing a key player such as Messi. "He is a special player that is key for us, but I have others," said Guardiola.

In Group D, Atletico and Liverpool are also battling for top spot, and it could all come down to who scores the most goals. Atletico, who lead Liverpool only on goal difference, will be welcoming PSV Eindhoven, while Rafa Benitez's Reds host UEFA Cup-bound Marseille.

Favourable statistics
Liverpool will be keen to avoid another slip-up, 13 months after the French side secured an unlikely 1-0 win at Anfield. However recent statistics are in their favour; this season Liverpool have beaten the French side twice at the Stade Velodrome, and Marseille's away results, losing at Atletico and PSV as well as going down to Liverpool, have fallen far short of expectations.

"You are always worried when you play Liverpool," admitted Dutchman Boudewijn Zenden, who rescued Marseille with a late strike in a 2-2 home draw against Lille on Sunday. "They are a team in the top two in England. It'll be very difficult, but we are not afraid."

Group A is far more open, and Bordeaux coach Laurent Blanc will be hoping for an off-night from Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka, his former France team-mate during 'Les Bleus' triumphant UEFA EURO 2000 campaign. Defeat for Luiz Felipe Scolari's side, who have qualified for the knockout phase for the past six successive seasons, would split the group wide open.

But Scolari is taking heart from his side's solid form away from home, albeit in the Premier League. "It is easier for us to win away from home," said Scolari. "We will go to Bordeaux for the victory, and we need a win in France to qualify for the next round."

In Group B, victory for Inter against resurgent Panathinaikos in Milan would guarantee they go through as group winners. Panathinaikos are living more in hope than expectation, having only revived a stuttering group campaign with a 3-0 away defeat of already eliminated Werder Bremen on their last outing a fortnight ago.

Gifts coming from Inter will be a rarity for the Greeks, who could nonetheless be doubly motivated by securing qualification, and avoiding losing out to Anorthosis.