As the Champions League returns, James Horncastle takes a glance at the Round of 16, which features some much closer match-ups than usual...
"All of this should give Arsenal hope. They go into this game as top seeds after finishing first in their group. They play the second leg at home. It is a huge game. One which could have a definitive bearing on whether Arsene Wenger decides to stay or go in the summer."
The draw in December threw up some familiar ties. But don't expect the same old story to unfold. Barcelona 4.57/2, Bayern Munich 5.14/1 and holders Real Madrid 6.411/2 remain the favourites to win the competition. And yet there is a palpable sense, even after Barça put six past Alaves at the weekend, and Bayern moved seven points clear at the top of the Bundesliga, that these sides, while still super talented, are not quite hitting the same exceptionally high standards set in recent years.
The Gun Show
Of course Arsenal haven't played well in quite a while now either. The weekend's win against Hull wasn't convincing. Mesut Özil's form is a concern. He hasn't scored in a couple of months and, generally, at the moment Arsenal are struggling to control games from midfield. But having said all of that, there is an argument that they have a better chance against Bayern this time around than they did when facing them in the Heynckes and Pep years. Miles out in front in Germany, the Bayern hierarchy are still not satisfied. Carlo Ancelotti's style seems too relaxed when contrasted with the last three years under Guardiola. The reversion to a more counter-attacking way of playing has granted opponents more of the ball and more opportunities to do damage. It has negatively impacted on the performances of key players like Thomas Müller.
CEO Karl Heinz Rummenigge has publicly criticised Jerome Boateng for taking on too much outside of football. The club was also taken aback by the timing of captain Philipp Lahm's announcement to retire and step away from the club at the end of the season. At the weekend, Bayern needed stoppage time goals to dispatch of second from bottom Ingolstadt. All of this should give Arsenal hope. They go into this game as top seeds after finishing first in their group. They play the second leg at home. It is a huge game. One which could have a definitive bearing on whether Arsene Wenger decides to stay or go in the summer.
Back the draw at the Allianz Arena @ 4.67/2.
Back El Matador in Paris
Barça offered a timely reminder of just what they're capable of at the weekend by blowing Alaves away in La Liga. They scored four goals in eight minutes in a 6-0 win, serving PSG with an ulterior warning of the scale of the task facing them at the Parc on Tuesday night. Unai Emery has yet to win a 'big game' as PSG manager and despite a run of six wins from their last seven games in Ligue 1, they still trail Monaco by three points. As Hatem Ben Arfa left the pitch on Friday night, he caused some controversy by telling one of Emery's assistants to stop shouting so much and let PSG play. The team and the coaching staff are not as one. But PSG still have enough about them to hurt Barça. Marco Verratti is back and Edinson Cavani is now playing his best football since moving to the French capital. His goals at the weekend made it 33 for the season.
The Uruguayan has found the back of the net in each of his last six appearances and is worth a punt as the First Goalscorer @ 5.14/1.
Our full PSG v Barcelona Betting Preview is behind the link.
Where Eagles Dare
The exchange favours Dortmund to qualify @ 1.232/9 but honestly I'm not so sure anymore. There is tension between Thomas Tuchel and the board over the club's recruitment strategy. The team is uber-talented, of that there is no doubt, but the flip-side of signing next big things is the time it takes for them to establish themselves and fulfil their potential. At the moment, Dortmund are very hit and miss, too inconsistent in the Bundesliga to challenge Bayern. They might not even finish in the top four.
Part of the reason for that is their away record. Dortmund have won only three times on the road in the Bundesliga this season. They lost to bottom club Darmstadt at the weekend and have also slipped up against teams like Ingolstadt and Augsburg. Serious questions are being asked ahead of their trip to Lisbon and you have to say, on current form, it might be worth looking past Dortmund and appreciating the value in taking Benfica to qualify @ 3.3512/5.
Our full Benfica v Borussia Dortmund Betting Preview is behind the link.
Are Napoli the Real deal?
Visiting the Bernabeu has been compared by Jorge Valdano to spending 90 minutes in the dentist's chair. It can be a painful, drawn-out experience. Opponents often leave bloody and numb. But Napoli must believe. They are unbeaten since the end of October and play the best football in Italy. Real naturally have the better individuals, but Napoli are greater than the sum of their parts. Their style has been compared to Sacchi's Milan.
Real were not entirely convincing even when they went all the way last season. If Roma had been more clinical at the Bernabeu, the Spanish giants would have been out just as the knockouts began. Wolfsburg then scare Real in the first leg of the quarter-final, winning 2-0. This year the story hasn't really been any different. Real were behind against Sporting and Legia Warsaw as both games entered the final 10 minutes and they didn't win their group for the first time in four years.
Take Napoli on Double Chance @ 2.77/4. This could be the upset of the round. After all, Real have been eliminated in seven of their last eight encounters with teams from Serie A and no one has gone back-to-back in the Champions League era.
Bayern - Arsenal to Draw @ 4.67/2
Edinson Cavani as First Goalscorer @ 5.14/1
Benfica to Qualify @ 3.3512/5
Napoli on Double Chance @ 2.77/4