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Top guns look to make last 16

London: Real Madrid, Deportivo Coruna and Juventus will all be hoping to book themselves an early place in the Champions League knockout stages when they take to the field this week.

Buoyed by an impressive run in their opening three matches, victories for all three would secure them a place in the pre-quarters with two group games to spare.

Real, bidding for a tenth European Cup, have the easiest task on paper away to a Partizan Belgrade side who have only one point on the board so far in Group F.

The Spanish will have their tails up after Brazil striker Ronaldo scored twice and set up the other for Luis Figo in a 3-0 win over Athletic Bilbao that sent them briefly to the top of the Spanish league on Saturday.

England skipper David Beckham returned to the starting line-up after missing two games out with a pulled hamstring.

A day later, the good news continued when the club said skipper Raul and midfielder Guti would sign contract extensions and that defender Michel Salgado had agreed a new five-year deal.

The runners-up slot in Real’s group is likely to go to either Porto or Olympique Marseille, who meet in Portugal.

Like Real, Juventus are also looking for a fourth win on the trot in a difficult game at Real Sociedad.

Though last season’s runners-up will start as favourites, a victory for the hosts would throw group D open, particularly as Galatasaray are likely to pick up three points from Olympiakos.

Juventus, who drew 1-1 with European champions AC Milan on Saturday, lead with nine points, ahead of Real Sociedad (six), Galatasaray (three) and the point-less Olympiakos.

Deportivo Coruna only have seven points at the top of group C, but a victory at Monaco on Wednesday will turn things strongly in their favour.

That would ensure the Spaniards go through if the group ended with both teams, plus PSV Eindhoven, level and results among the trio were calculated in a mini-league.

Elsewhere, Europe’s top clubs will simply be looking to stay up front in the race to the last 16.

Among the eagerly-awaited games will be an all-British clash between Manchester United and Rangers at Old Trafford.

United, on six points, need to keep the pressure on group E and Bundesliga leaders VfB Stuttgart, who also have six points and take on the winless Panathinaikos.

Holders Milan need to atone for a shock 0-1 defeat by Bruges with a revenge win in Belgium if they are to stay on the tails of group H leaders Ajax Amsterdam.

Bayern Munich, top of group A by a point from Olympique Lyon and Anderlecht, can take a big step towards qualification with a home win over the French champions.

Third-placed Lazio get a chance to move up in group G when they meet leaders Chelsea at Rome’s Olympic Stadium.

It could be a decisive night for Chelsea’s derby rivals Arsenal, rock bottom of group B on one point before hosting Dynamo Kiev. Leaders Inter Milan, on six points, are at home to Lokomotiv Moscow.

FIXTURES

Tuesday — Group E: Manchester United vs Rangers; Panathinaikos vs VfB Stuttgart. Group F: Partizan Belgrade vs Real Madrid; FC Porto vs Marseille. Group G: Besiktas vs Sparta Prague; Lazio vs Chelsea. Group H: Celta Vigo vs Ajax; FC Bruges vs AC Milan.

Wednesday — Group A: Bayern Munich vs Lyon; Celtic vs Anderlecht. Group B: Arsenal vs Dynamo Kiev; Inter Milan vs Lokomotiv Moscow. Group C: Monaco vs Deportivo La Coruna; PSV Eindhoven vs AEK Athens. Group D: Olympiakos vs Galatasaray; Real Sociedad vs Juventus.

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