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Barcelona, Real Madrid still finding their stride

Yahoo Sports

Two Spanish giants, two hated rivals and two unexpected Champions League headaches for Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Both teams began the new campaign with rightfully lofty European expectations. Barca's imperious march to last season's trophy was so impressive that it was impossible to foresee any slipups in the early stages this season. For Real Madrid, the combined talents of newcomers Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema were thought to be enough to give the team a legitimate shot at dominating at Champions League level.

Instead, both clubs and their signature stars – Ronaldo at Madrid and Lionel Messi at Barcelona – have experienced problems that have their teams perilously situated with only two games of group play remaining.

Messi has been unable to deliver his customary magic on the field after being stifled by Russian champions Rubin Kazan in back-to-back games that produced only a single point for Barca. The speed and physicality of Kazan has shown that Messi can be contained, if not stopped altogether, and that his impact on this year's tournament may not be a striking as it was last season.

Madrid has had to make do without Ronaldo ever since the Portugal star went down with an ankle injury last month. His absence has been glaring with the team's lack of creative impetus in its last two games against AC Milan.

Yet are the issues facing the Spanish teams as simple as the patchy form or non-presence of their biggest stars? Another school of thought suggests that La Liga, while a wonderful spectacle and a league full of skill and creativity, no longer adequately prepares its teams for the rigors of Europe. Spanish football's highly technical nature does not translate so well into the Champions League these days, where a more rugged and physical approach has quickly become the norm.

The toughness and intensity of the English Premier League appears to be the best breeding ground for European success just now, as shown by our latest rankings.

Yahoo! Sports' UEFA Champions League rankings

1. Chelsea – Settled for a point but still the toughest team in Europe.

2. Arsenal – Cruised through the group without breaking a sweat.

3. Manchester United – Survived a major scare and looked shaky.

4. Lyon – Qualified thanks to Lisandro's late equalizer.

5. Barcelona – Another draw and elimination is still possible.

6. Bordeaux – Slick and tenacious side can make a splash.

7. Real Madrid – Can't wait for the return of Ronaldo.

8. Inter Milan – Critical victory in Kiev puts them top of group.

Man of the matches

Cesc Fabregas. Arsenal's young captain was phenomenal once again as the Gunners breezed past AZ Alkmaar 4-1. Despite rumors linking him with a move away, Fabregas continues to perform at an outstanding level and scored twice as the Gunners surged into the knockout stage.

Shock of the week

It was almost even more of a shock but CSKA Moscow's 3-3 with Manchester United at Old Trafford was the most surprising result of the round. Just a couple more minutes and the Russian visitors would have pulled off a spectacular upset – and Sir Alex Ferguson would have had some explaining to do.

We're happy

Bordeaux. The French champions have been outstanding so far and are into the round of 16. Bordeaux's victory in Munich on Tuesday was further proof that Laurent Blanc's men have a chance of not only winning a group that includes Juventus and Bayern Munich but also making serious progress in the competition.

We're not

Liverpool. Rafa Benitez could have seen the final nail hammered into his Anfield coffin by Lyon's late equalizer, which effectively doomed the Reds to elimination from the Champions League. Apart from a memorable victory over Manchester United in the English Premier League, Benitez has overseen a desperately poor run and the sack is surely not long in coming.