• Fri
  • Sep 19, 2014
  • Updated: 1:14pm

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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 May, 2009, 12:00am

One factor for punters to bear in mind this weekend is that the three English teams involved in the Champions League semi-finals are likely to rest key players for their Premier League games. For Barcelona, the other semi-finalists, there is no such luxury as they face a crunch league clash tonight against bitter rivals Real Madrid.

This is shaping up as a make-or-break week in Barcelona's season. First they go to the Bernabeu, where defeat would reduce their league lead over Real Madrid to one point with four games to play, and then they must overcome Chelsea in their Champions League second leg on Wednesday night.

In the end, for every big team, success or failure hinges on one or two key games, and it would be a shame if Barca's exciting and entertaining football failed them now. They have won 39 of their 55 games in all competitions under Pep Guardiola, at a rate of 71 per cent, and lost only five (two defeats came in dead rubbers in the Champions League, and another in their first league game for their new coach).

Most strikingly, they have scored two or more goals in 38 of those 55 games, racking up an incredible 94 goals in 33 league games (17 more than Real Madrid) and another 33 goals in 13 Champions League games. Now they must prove they can produce that form at the Bernabeu and Stamford Bridge - two of the toughest arenas in European football.

Distinctly in Barca's favour is their excellent away scoring record. In La Liga they have scored in all 15 away games since their opening-day 1-0 defeat at Numancia, while in the Champions League proper they have scored in all five away games. Their record in all competitions when scoring on the road is won 17, drawn five, lost one, so they will have good chances in the upcoming games unless Real Madrid and Chelsea can shut them out.

Real are likely to struggle to keep a clean sheet tonight. They have conceded in five of their seven previous games this season against top-six teams, and that suggests they will have to score at least twice to grab the victory that would blow the title race wide open. Barca look capable of taking at least a point, and they rate the pick on the handicap.

Barcelona's chance of progressing to the Champions League final has diminished after their goalless draw at home to Chelsea. From that position, in the Champions League, the second-leg home team have qualified 14 times out of 21 (67 per cent), so the advantage lies with Chelsea.

Again, a critical factor will be whether Chelsea can contain the Barca attack once more. Of the 11 home teams that conceded an away goal in the second leg following a goalless first leg, only four progressed to the next round.

Most important will be which team score first. Of the 21 ties that were goalless after the first leg, 19 have had goals in the second leg and all 19 were won by the team who opened the scoring.

While it is possible that Chelsea could be eliminated on away goals, they have to be the pick on the handicap in the match betting. Of the 21 second legs following a goalless draw, the home team have won 13 and lost only three. Barca are more capable than most teams of defying those stats, but Chelsea's home record remains among the best in Europe and they will be hard to beat.

Having said that, each match must be taken on its merits and Chelsea don't look the safest proposition tonight at short odds in their home game against neighbours Fulham. Guus Hiddink (pictured) is sure to rest players and that will encourage Fulham, who are a tough team to break down and will be keen to take something to keep them in the race for seventh place.

Fulham have avoided defeat in more away games than they have lost - a record that also holds true against top-half teams - and they are showing their best away form of the season with two wins and two draws from their last four games on the road.

Fulham have drawn on their last two visits to Stamford Bridge and, with Chelsea having beaten only two of the top-10 sides at home this season, the visitors are worth chancing on the handicap.

Another home team to be wary of are Aston Villa, even though they host struggling Hull. Villa have won only half of their eight home games against teams in the bottom half of the table and their odds look too short.

A stronger home chance at better odds is Manchester City, who will be trying to make it nine wins out of 10 at home to teams below them in the table when they host Blackburn tonight. Wigan also look a good-value home chance in their derby against Bolton, while the best away chance at the odds is Everton, who look worth backing on the handicap at Sunderland, having lost only two out of 12 away to teams below them in the table.

Shortlist

Stuttgart, Leverkusen, Fulham, Manchester City, Leicester, Leeds, Lille, Lyon, Toulouse, Coventry, Blackpool, Wolves, Palermo, Everton, Recreativo, Hamburg, Le Havre, Atletico Madrid, Hull.

Best bets

$200 Fulham (handicap HAD, Sat), Toulouse (handicap HAD, Sat), Coventry (handicap HAD, Sun), Blackpool (handicap HAD, Sun), Recreativo (handicap HAD, Sun), Le Havre (handicap HAD, Sun), Hull (handicap HAD, Mon).

Last week

One winning bet out of one.

Form fact

Manchester City have lost 20 points from a winning position (joint-highest in the Premier League) and gained only three from a losing position (joint-lowest in the Premier League)

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