THE Champions League group phase concludes this midweek. Here Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) picks out his favourite fancies from Tuesday night’s coupon.
PSG v Ludogorets | Tuesday 19:45 | BT Sport ESPN
Paris Saint-Germain seized control of Group A with a richly-deserved 2-2 draw at Arsenal on matchday five and the Ligue 1 champions should seal top spot in the pool with a relatively cushy victory at home to Ludogorets.
Les Rouges-et-Bleu have reached the quarter-final stage of Europe’s premier club competition in each of the last four seasons and arrive at the Parc des Princes defending a formidable home record in continental competition (W26-D14-L1).
Having already seen off Ludogorets 3-1 in Bulgaria, the French outfit should again prove too strong in the capital, even without the suspended Marco Verratti and injured Adrien Rabiot, plus the intense spotlight that continues to hang over head coach Unai Emery.
The growing mood of optimism surrounding PSG’s renewed title challenge evaporated in the immediate aftermath of Les Parisians’ shock 3-0 reverse at Montpellier last weekend. It was the club’s heaviest defeat in any competition in over five years.
Les Rouges-et-Bleu had W10-D2-L0 in their prior 12 outings but Emery’s switch from the 4-2-3-1 formation that had reaped such positive results in recent weeks, to a 4-3-3 devoid of creativity has come in for plenty of criticism.
The loss leaves PSG trailing league leaders Nice by four points ahead of this weekend’s tumultuous tussle between the two but first Emery and his troops will be keen to bounce back from their weekend disaster and rubberstamp qualification in top spot here.
The hosts have kept clean sheets in each of their last seven Parc des Princes encounters and recorded wins ‘to nil’ in each of their last 10 home triumphs. And Les Rouges-et-Bleu have cleared a two-goal handicap in seven of those 10 wins. However, I’m keen to explore another avenue of attack.
Edinson Cavani has scored a total 19 goals In 19 appearances for PSG this season, notching goals in 13 (68%) of those fixtures. In the French capital, the Uruguayan striker has bagged seven goals in eight games, getting on the scoresheet on six (75%) separate occasions.
Cavani’s often unfairly called out for his wayward finishing in big games but ‘El Matador’ deserves credit for his movement. Having moved into his favoured central striking role, the number nine has been involved in countless goalscoring situations and only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have fired in more shots during this Champions League campaign.
So my selection here is to support Cavani in the First Goalscorer market at a bulbous 9/4 (Bet365). The Uruguayan is on penalty duty for PSG and has already broken the deadlock in six (33%) of his 18 starts this season whilst the hosts have scored in the first-half in seven of their last eight Paris outings.
Visitors Ludogorets are eyeing up the opportunity to become the first Bulgarian side to advance from a Champions League group. Sure, Europa League football is the only carrot on offer but should they match the result Basel achieve against Arsenal, the Eagles will have made history.
Coach Georgi Dermendzhiev and playmaker Marcelinho have spoken positively pre-match about their prospects whilst executive director Angel Petrichev said at Sofia airport that miracles could happen on Bulgaria’s equivalent to Saint Nicholas’s day (Tuesday).
Ludogorets have taken their domestic title in each of the past five years and are only two games shy of a Bulgarian top-flight record for winning 14 games on the spin. The Eagles gave Arsenal a run for their money in Razgrad but their 6-0 pummelling in London is a timely reminder of their where they’re at in the bigger picture.
The visitors have leaked 13 goals in five group games, faced 71 shots – 47 of which came from inside their own area – and are taking on a PSG side that’s created at least four golden opportunities to score in all five of their European excursions this term.
Benfica v Napoli | Tuesday 19:45 | BT Sport Extra
There’s no doubt the most interesting match of night takes place in Lisbon as two of the three clubs still capable of progressing, exiting and winning Group B go head-to-head.
Both teams will advance if third-placed Besiktas lose away in bitterly cold conditions in Kiev but a victory for the Turks would ensure that one of them falls out of the top-two here. Napoli need only a point to qualify whilst Benfica must match the result in the Ukraine to assure a Last 16 spot.
So the Portuguese champions still have their fate in their own hands but Rui Vitoria’s troops will rue their matchday five implosion in Istanbul. The Eagles cruised into a 3-0 half-time lead away at Besiktas only to eventually draw 3-3 having shipped two goals in the final 10 minutes.
And the hosts arrive at Tuesday night’s test on the back of their first domestic defeat in 10 months and 23 games following their 2-1 defeat at Maritimo on Friday night. Benfica still lead the Primeira Liga by two points but the loss has sharpened minds in the home camp.
The Eagles are looking to come through the Champions League group stage in consecutive seasons for the first time but with their only other reverse in 29 outings arriving against their opponents Napoli, there’s understandably anxiety in Lisbon.
Benfica have only beaten rock-bottom Dynamo Kiev in this season’s competition and head into this showdown without their first-choice and back-up left-backs Alex Grimaldo and Eliseu. The versatile Andre Almeida is expected to step into the breach on Tuesday night.
There are positives for Rui Vitoria, mind. Last season’s top goalscorer Jonas is back in full training, Kostas Mitroglou is looking dangerous in the final third and Pizzi is in good form. And the Eagles are unbeaten in the Portuguese capital since February.
In fact, Benfica have won each of their last six home matches in all competitions by an aggregate scoreline of 20-1, been victorious in four of their seven Champions home games since the start of 2015/16 (W4-D2-L1) and claimed top honours in 34 of their past 39 home league encounters.
If pushed, I’d prefer to be with the home side here but a better bet might be to support Both Teams To Score at 3/4 (Betfair). The Eagles boast enough threat in offensive areas to hurt Napoli here but there’s a danger their 4-4-2 system might be overrun.
Benfica’s defence is less secure than usual and collectively these two clubs have scored in 9/10 of their Group B outings and BTTS collected on six occasions.
Napoli could have sealed qualification on matchday three – the earliest in Champions League history – but blew their opportunity. In the Partenopei’s last appearance in this competition, they failed to get out of their pool despite collecting 12 points – a record points total for a non-qualifying club.
So Maurizio Sarri is keen to banish those bitter memories with a positive performance in Portugal. His visitors warmed up for this match in emphatic fashion, swatting Inter Milan aside 3-0 in Naples on Friday night.
Napoli are now unbeaten in six (W2-D4-L0) but have bagged only four triumphs in 12 across all competitions since September, only two of which arrived on their travels. With no Italian team having won in Portugal since 1993, the stats are stacked against the guests.
Arkadiusz Milik’s long-term injury continues to bite but Lorenzo Insigne’s come to the fore of late, scoring four goals in as many games, whilst Marek Hamsik, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens have all chipped in for Sarri’s side.
The return of Raul Albiol has improved the Partenopei defence but with no clean sheets on the road since September and a backline that’s leaked in 10 of their last 13 fixtures, it’s hard to find the faith in Napoli stopping Benfica scoring here.
Together the two teams average an expected goals rate of 3.17 goals per-game across their 10 games, over 23 shots per-game – 13.5 of which have arrived from inside the opposition penalty box – and 4.6 golden goalscoring opportunities per-game.
With plenty riding on the result, I anticipate an exciting shootout in Lisbon.