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Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011

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Access denied: Napoli's Christian Maggio (left) tackles Manchester City's David Silva at the San Paolo stadium on Tuesday. AP

Manchester clubs hit setbacks in Champions League


LONDON — A finalist in three of the last four years, Manchester United is struggling to even get out of its group in this season's Champions League.

Barcelona, Real Madrid and AC Milan were joined on Tuesday by two more of Europe's soccer elite, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, in the knockout stage of the game's biggest club competition.

There is still one glaring omission from this list of the world's biggest clubs however — the English champions.

United was held to a 2-2 home draw by Benfica on Tuesday, leaving its hopes of qualifying from arguably the easiest of the competition's eight groups hanging in the balance.

"The chips are down," said United manager Alex Ferguson, "but I have every confidence in the team."

At least a draw is needed at Swiss champion Basel next month if United is to avoid becoming the biggest casualty of the group stage.

Benfica's point at Old Trafford ensured the Portuguese side, two-time European champion in the 1960s, also qualified for the competition's last 16, increasing the misery for United at Old Trafford.

It was a bad night, too, for United's archrival Manchester City.

Blazing a trail at the top of the Premier League, the destiny of Roberto Mancini's side is out of its hands in its first season in the Champions League after losing 2-1 at Napoli.

A brace of goals by Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani left Napoli a point ahead of City in Group A, knowing a victory at already-eliminated Villarreal will ensure the Italian side finishes second behind Bayern.

The German team, which will host the final at its Allianz Arena stadium next May, beat Villarreal 3-1 to guarantee top spot in the group, France winger Franck Ribery scoring two of the goals.

Inter, the 2010 champion, qualified Tuesday before a ball was kicked in its match at Trabzonspor, courtesy of Lille's earlier 2-0 win at CSKA Moscow in Group B. The Italians secured first place, however, by drawing 1-1 in Turkey.

Real Madrid, meanwhile, thrashed Dinamo Zagreb 6-2 to keep its perfect record in Group D, where Ajax drew 0-0 at Lyon to virtually guarantee the Dutch team's progress.

United, which without England striker Wayne Rooney (hip) had only itself to blame for the goals conceded against Benfica.

England defender Phil Jones turned the ball into his own net to gift the visitors a third-minute lead and goalkeeper David de Gea failed to clear his lines properly in the 60th, allowing Pablo Aimar to make it 2-2 barely 60 seconds after Darren Fletcher had put United ahead for the first time.

Dimitar Berbatov — with his first goal in Europe in three years — had earlier equalized in the 30th.

"The goals were a bit freakish — an own goal and then bad kick out by David de Gea," United manager Alex Ferguson said. "It's a cruel game at times.

"It will be a hard game in Basel."

Japan wins qualifier


MANAMA — Yuki Otsu and Keigo Higashi were on target as Japan's Under-22s beat Bahrain 2-0 away to make it two wins out of two Tuesday in the final round of Asian qualifying for next year's London Olympics.

Borussia Monchengladbach forward Otsu put Japan ahead late in the first half and Higashi scored for the second game in a row to seal the points for Takashi Sekizuka's men, who had opened the final round with a 2-0 win at home to Malaysia in September.

Bahrain suffered its second defeat in a row, having lost its Group C opener 3-1 away to Syria.

"Getting three points was the bottom line so I am pleased we have been able to do that. The players pulled together and pulled out the win," said Japan coach Sekizuka.

Chances were few and far between in a first half played in blustery conditions at a virtually empty National Stadium, but Bahrain went close to opening the scoring in the 39th minute when Abdulwahab Almalood's long-range effort hit the outside of the post.

However it was Japan that took the lead on the stroke of halftime thanks to a blunder by Ebrahim Lutfalla, the Bahrain goalkeeper flapping at Takahiro Ogihara's corner and allowing Otsu to slide home the loose ball.

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