MILAN (Agencies): Spanish champions Barcelona reached the Champions League knockout phase with two games to spare, despite being held by a spirited Inter Milan in a dramatic finish at the San Siro.
Barcelona, without the injured Lionel Messi, took a late lead when substitute Malcom scored moments after coming on.
But Inter levelled when Mauro Icardi was given time to turn in the Barca box and blast in from close range.
Inter remain second in Group B, three points ahead of Tottenham.
With Inter and Tottenham still to meet again, it means one of these sides will drop points and therefore only one can to overhaul Barcelona.
When the Champions League group stage draw was made in the summer, many eyes were immediately drawn to a group which was generally considered as one of the toughest in the competition.
Barcelona, however, have made relatively light work of it.
The Spanish champions are considered one of the favourites for the tournament – although second behind Manchester City with many bookmakers – but have not progressed past the quarter-final stage since winning in 2015.
And they knew a victory in the San Siro would seal their place in the knockout stage as group winners for a 12th season in a row.
Without Messi, who travelled to Italy following an arm injury but was ultimately not risked, the visitors controlled an engrossing game against an Inter side which had won nine of their previous 10 games.
Luis Suarez was the chief threat, firing a fierce shot over the bar in the first half, then seeing a close-range effort disallowed after the break because the ball had gone out play before Ivan Rakitic crossed.
However, their reward came when Malcom whipped into the bottom left corner from 20 yards for his first Barcelona goal since arriving from Bordeaux last summer.
That looked set to give manager Ernesto Valverde the opportunity to rest some players in the final two games against PSV Eindhoven and Tottenham if he wished – until Icardi’s late intervention.
Inter’s only defeat in their recent run came in last month’s reverse fixture in the Nou Camp and, before the rematch, manager Luciano Spalletti urged his players to show they could compete against opponents of “the highest level”.
While Barcelona dominated possession and territory, Inter were far from outclassed and their resolve was rewarded when Icardi blasted in his only chance of the night.
The Argentine striker, who played in the Barcelona youth ranks, was able to turn away from Sergi Roberto in the penalty area and fire in through the legs of keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
While it mattered little to Barcelona in terms of their qualification, the equaliser could prove to have huge significance for the hosts as they now know a draw against Tottenham at Wembley on 28 November will see them reach the last 16 for the first time since 2012.
Atletico wins to join Dortmund at the top
Atletico Madrid made sure things were different this time against Borussia Dortmund.
After a demoralizing 4-0 loss in Germany last month, the team’s worst under coach Diego Simeone, Atletico rebounded with a convincing 2-0 win over Dortmund on Tuesday, a result that left both clubs at the top of Group A in the Champions League.
”We really wanted to give them a game after they hammered us in Germany,” Atletico forward Antoine Griezmann said. ”We learned from our errors and have given a much better image of ourselves tonight.”
Dortmund started well again at Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, but Saul Niguez put the hosts ahead near the end of the first half and Griezmann sealed the victory in a breakaway near the end.
”We knew it would be difficult in their stadium, it’s a different story here,” Dortmund forward Mario Goetze said.
The victory left Atletico and Dortmund with nine points each. The teams couldn’t secure a spot in the knockout stage with two rounds left because Club Brugge routed Monaco 4-0 earlier Tuesday and has four points. Monaco, with one point, was eliminated.
Dortmund, which ended with no shots on target, could have sealed first place in the group had it beaten Atletico again. It hadn’t been defeated in 15 competitive matches under new coach Lucien Favre.
Atletico won despite playing without key players like injured striker Diego Costa.
”I’m happy because the team played as a team,” Simeone said.
Niguez opened the scoring after a beautiful exchange of passes that started when Niguez himself picked up the ball outside the area. He passed a defender and sent a low ball to Filipe Luis, who made a run down the left flank before crossing back toward the middle of the box. Angel Correa let the ball go through, and Niguez came in behind him to fire a low shot into the net. Dortmund defender Manuel Akanji touched the ball in front of the goal line but it wasn’t enough to clear it.
Atletico took full control of the game after the first goal and missed several other opportunities to add to the lead during the rest of the first half. It continued to have chances in the second half while Dortmund struggled to get near the goal of Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
Griezmann, in his 50th Champions League game, put an end to Dortmund’s hopes in the 80th with a soft touch from inside the area as Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Burki charged from the net after a pass by midfielder Thomas Partey.
”We controlled the first 20 minutes, had lots of possession, but after we conceded it was a different game. We lost our way a bit after that and it was not our best game,” Dortmund captain Marco Reus said. ”It was our first defeat and a deserved one. Atletico just don’t allow you lots of chances.”
In addition to Costa’s absence, Atletico also played without defender Diego Godin, midfielder Jorge ”Koke” Resurreccion and forward Thomas Lemar. At halftime, central defender Jose Maria Gimenez had to be replaced because of a thigh injury.
Atletico didn’t get past the group stage last season, ending a run of four straight years making it at least to the quarterfinals. It reached the final twice, both times losing to city rival Real Madrid.
Dortmund also disappointed last season, winning only two points in its group and not making it to the knockout round. It had reached the quarterfinals in the previous year.
The team’s 15-match unbeaten run under Favre was the best ever for a Dortmund coach. The team hosts Bayern Munich on Saturday in the Bundesliga.
In the Champions League, it next hosts Club Brugge on Nov. 28, while Atletico hosts Monaco on the same day.