As the Champions League group stage reaches its conclusion this week, we’re set for a thrilling finale in Group F as Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund battle it out to join Barcelona in the last-16.
Inter host Barcelona, who are already confirmed as group winners, at the San Siro while Dortmund play Slavia Prague at the Westfalenstadion.
At present, Inter and Dortmund are locked together on seven points, with the Italians ahead by virtue of their superior head-to-head record over the Germans.
Inter Milan will be hoping for more scenes of celebration after Tuesday’s Barcelona match
Borussia Dortmund are ready to take advantage of any Inter Milan slip in the Group F finale
Barcelona are already through… but will Inter Milan or Borussia Dortmund be joining them?
They beat Dortmund 2-0 in the San Siro back on October 23 but then lost 3-2 in Dortmund a couple of weeks later, meaning they have the edge currently by a single goal.
We preview what could easily be the most exciting finish to any of the Champions League groups.
WHAT ARE THE PERMUTATIONS?
As mentioned, Inter have a slight edge entering the final round of fixtures but, in theory at least, Dortmund will have the easier match.
Inter know they will qualify for the last-16 if they beat Barcelona or so long as they finish level on points with Dortmund at the end of the evening.
Dortmund know they must collect more points than Inter, which is likely to mean beating a Slavia side that have yet to record a victory from five games in the group.
So it could be a night of twists and turns with fans in both Milan and Dortmund keeping one eye on results elsewhere.
Barcelona will travel to Milan without some key players but will want to spoil Inter’s party
WITH BARCA THROUGH, WILL THEY REST PLAYERS?
Barcelona have already secured their passage into the last-16 and are also confirmed as the group winners, so their visit to Milan is very much a dead rubber.
Accordingly, coach Ernesto Valverde has decided to rest his star turn Lionel Messi and also defender Gerard Pique and midfielder Sergi Roberto.
They’re also without the injured Ousmane Dembele, Arthur, Jordi Alba and Nelson Semedo for the trip to Italy.
Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick at the weekend but will be rested for Barca’s visit to Milan
However, the likes of Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann and teenager Ansu Fati are in the squad so it won’t be a completely second string Barca team.
Nevertheless, the absence of Messi, who scored a hat-trick on Saturday as Barca beat Mallorca 5-2 in the league, will be a boost for Inter as they chase the result they need.
You can also imagine Dortmund are cursing their misfortune as they rely on an already-through Barca to do them a favour.
DO INTER HAVE THE FIREPOWER TO GET THE JOB DONE?
With Dortmund expected to rack up a few goals against Slavia, Inter are going to have to score against Barca at some point to make it through.
Luckily, in forwards Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, they have two seriously in-form players to get the job done.
Argentine Martinez has scored 13 times so far this season, including five in the Champions League group stage, while Lukaku has 11 since moving from Manchester United in the summer.
Romelu Lukaku has been in fine form this season, scoring 11 times since arriving at Inter
Inter’s Argentine forward Lautaro Martinez is also in top form having scored 13 goals
Their goals are a primary reason in Inter sitting top of Serie A, having lost just the one match so far this season, and why plenty of people are starting to believe Antonio Conte’s side can usurp Juventus.
They drew a rare blank against Roma on Friday night but Inter are unbeaten in their last eight in the league and have held their own in a first Champions League campaign since 2011-12.
They will be without their Man United loanee Alexis Sanchez for the game – the Chilean is sidelined with an ankle injury.
ARE THEY SOLID ENOUGH AT THE BACK TO CONTAIN BARCA?
Conte has Inter playing a 3-5-2 formation and it’s certainly helped them be more resolute at the back this season.
They’ve only let in 13 goals in their opening 15 matches in Serie A, the lowest tally in the division, and we’ve seen some miserly displays from the likes of Milan Skriniar, Stefan de Vrij and Diego Godin.
Antonio Conte has succeeded in making Inter more resolute at the back since he arrived
Diego Godin keeps tabs on Roma’s Nicolo Zaniolo during Friday night’s Serie A fixture
Of course, they’ll still have a tricky test even against a slightly weakened Barca side and it was Suarez who proved their downfall with two goals in the Nou Camp back in October anyway.
It’s still very possible that Barcelona boss Valverde will go with Griezmann and Suarez alongside perhaps 21-year-old Carles Perez in a dangerous three-pronged attack so nobody can rest on their laurels.
WHAT MOOD ARE BARCELONA IN?
Barca come into the fixture in very good form, having won their last four league matches to maintain their place at the top of the table, albeit level on points with rivals Real Madrid.
They’ve also made light work of a potentially troublesome Champions League group, winning three and drawing two of their matches to seal progress with a game to spare.
With a trip to Real Sociedad and a Clasico with Real Madrid on the horizon, Barca could be excused for taking it a little easier on Tuesday night but that isn’t really their way.
Two goals from Luis Suarez guided Barcelona to victory against Inter in the Nou Camp
Playing Inter in the San Siro remains very much a glamour tie in European football and they’ll want to make a good impression.
They have also dominated previous meetings between the two clubs, winning five of nine games and losing just the one.
They famously met in the semi-finals of the 2009-10 Champions League, when Jose Mourinho’s Inter won the first leg 3-1 in Milan and then defended for their lives in the Nou Camp to lose just 1-0 and advance to the final.
Jose Mourinho’s celebrations after Inter overcame Barcelona to reach the final back in 2010
WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS FOR DORTMUND?
Of course, crashing out of the Champions League and making do with Europa League football after Christmas is going to come as a blow to Inter or Dortmund.
But then both knew this was the likely scenario when they were placed together in this season’s ‘group of death’.
Dortmund’s season has been a mixed one at times though a recent uptick in form since they were thrashed 4-0 by Bayern Munich means they still sit third in the Bundesliga table, albeit five points off leaders Borussia Monchengladbach.
They are desperate to end their wait for a league title and so exiting the Champions League could prove a blessing in disguise in the long run.
Jadon Sancho scored twice as Borussia Dortmund thrashed Fortuna Dusseldorf on Saturday
Dortmund went down 3-1 to Barcelona in their last match as qualification hopes faded away
Equally, they would automatically become one of the favourites to win the Europa League should they drop into that competition and would feel it’s within their capabilities to do so.
Dortmund have become accustomed to playing in the Champions League in recent years and going out could lead to other clubs swooping to try and sign England star Jadon Sancho in January.
Exiting could also deal a psychological blow that could send their results into a tailspin again.
But with their destiny out of their own hands, Dortmund can only beat Slavia and hope for good news from Milan.