As the Champions League returns from half-term, James Horncastle looks at how the competition is shaping up and, in particular, the groups that are too close to call...
"Diego Simeone and Claudio Ranieri's sides have been flawless thus far. Both have yet to concede a goal."
It's half-term in the Champions League group stages and the lay of the land is a little clearer after the first three Matchdays. Only Barça, Atletico and Leicester find themselves on maximum points midway through their qualification campaigns. Diego Simeone and Claudio Ranieri's sides have been flawless thus far - both have yet to concede a goal.
By now we can be pretty sure who is going to qualify from Group A. Arsenal share top spot with PSG and there are already six points between them and Ludogorets in third. It's a similar story in Group D where Atleti rule the roost, chased by Bayern who can still just about make out PSV in their rearview mirror, but only just. The Dutch champions are five points behind while over in F and H the chasing pack are four points back and seem unlikely to edge out Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund and Juventus and Sevilla respectively.
Race for Group G runners-up spot finely poised
Barça and Leicester appear to have the No.1 seed sewn up in Group C and G, but there are a still few that are wide open. In fact if we stay with the Foxes, the battle for the runner-up slot is delicately poised. The market makes Porto the favourites for it even though it must be said this isn't a vintage Porto side. Six points off the pace in the Liga Nos, they lost at the King Power stadium and were held by Copenhagen at the Dragão. The Danes smashed Brugge in MD 2 and deserved to get something in England a fortnight ago. Andreas Cornelius came close to equalising before the interval and then, towards the end, forced his compatriot Kasper Schmeichel to make a wonder save, which sealed the points for Leicester. Take Copenhagen to get out of the group @ 2.47/5.
Napoli and Besiktas should qualify from Group B
Meanwhile in Group B, Napoli looked to have left everyone eating their dust. They could have become the first team ever to qualify with three games to spare. However, poor defending, a dreadful backpass and a missed penalty offered Besiktas an open invitation to win on Italian soil for the first time. That result makes things very interesting indeed as all that now separates Napoli from Benfica in passport control for the Europa League is two points and the Partenopei still have to go to Istanbul and Lisbon before this group is done.
Might pole position be under threat particularly in light of Arkadiusz Milik's injury, Manolo Gabbiadini's struggles in the centre-forward position and the increased workload Dries Mertens now faces as a False Nine? All considered I'm still backing Napoli but Besiktas could be the surprise package in ousting last season's quarter-finalists Benfica. Back the Turks to qualify at 1.824/5.
Could Gladbach break Man City hearts?
Group C is another one that does not lack for intrigue. Tournament favourites and top scorers Barça are running away with it and their 4-0 win against Manchester City a fortnight ago made quite a statement. Pep Guardiola was pleased with how his team played until Claudio Bravo got himself sent off. But the MSN had a lot of fun with John Stones and, as every City fans knows, the Blaugrana have a perfect record at the Etihad.
With Gladbach breathing down their necks, one wonders if they should actually be worried about qualifying from the group. City have still got to pay a visit to Borussia Park and it isn't a ground that holds pleasant memories for Guardiola. Gladbach never lost to his Bayern side in the Bundesliga with Andre Schubert in charge, improbably taking four points from six against them. The Foals are 4.77/2 to qualify and will have to turn into thoroughbreds to pip City to the post, particularly after watching the manner in which they returned to winning ways at the weekend, eviscerating West Brom 4-0.
Monaco must rate as favourites in Group E
Elsewhere, the closest group to call without doubt involves Spurs. Three points is all that separates top and bottom in Group E and unlike all the other groups in the competition, no one can book themselves a place in the Round of 16 on Matchday 4. Monaco have been the most impressive of them all so far and appear to have rediscovered the guile that got them to the quarter-finals at Arsenal's expense two years ago. Bernardo Silva was magnificent in the win over Spurs in London as well as in the hard-fought point they picked up in Moscow last time out. Two of their remaining three games are at the Stade Louis II and, while Tottenham can be found at shorter odds on the exchange, I make Monaco favourites to advance as group winners. Back them to do just that @ 2.942/1.
Back Monaco as Group E Winner @ 2.942/1
Back Copenhagen to Qualify @ 2.47/5
Back Besiktas to Qualify @ 1.824/5