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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 February, 2010, 12:00am

John Terry has played four English Premier League matches since the scandal about his private life engulfed him, but he has been given time off this weekend as Chelsea prepare to face Cardiff in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Chelsea's captain will be looking forward to a return to Premier League action next weekend and the resumption of the Champions League, and many punters will be doing the same.

The Champions League starts again on Tuesday, but a new format means that four of the first legs in the round of 16 are played in midweek - including the ties involving Manchester United and Arsenal - and the other four the following week, when Chelsea's first-leg visit to Inter Milan is the main attraction.

Making a profit betting on the Champions League is not easy, but the clash of top form lines from across Europe makes the competition one of the most fascinating challenges for punters. The cream tends to rise to the top but, if domestic league form was the most important factor, more champions would win the Champions League. In the past decade, however, only five reigning league champions have lifted the trophy and just three of those were from the most competitive leagues of England, Spain and Italy.

What that shows is how difficult it is to be at the top domestically and in the Champions League at the same time - a team who can do both, as Barcelona and Manchester United have in the past two years, truly have claims to be regarded as the best in Europe.

The majority of Champions League winners are not so dominant and the best approach for punters is to concentrate on this season's Champions League form, rather than domestic performances. That's what I decided to do several years ago and, by rating the last-16 teams on five form factors, it has proved to be a winning formula.

In the six seasons since the current format was adopted for the Champions League, nine of the 12 finalists have got a tick for all five form factors and one of the others, 2004 winners Porto, had four. Only Liverpool, with their surprising and ultimately dramatic triumph in 2005, have really torn up the form book.

The previous season, Liverpool had finished fourth in the Premier League, 30 points off the top, and they dropped to fifth, 37 points behind the winners, in the season of their Champions League success. Their Champions League form did not really take off until the knockout rounds, which made them by far the hardest winners to find in recent years.

This season the shortlist of potential winners is Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Real Madrid - not, you will notice, Barcelona, who fall down on one of the key form indicators. This will not prevent them from winning, of course, if they have the important element of luck with them, as they did in the second leg of their semi-final at Chelsea last season.

But it is always interesting when an alternative view of form brings up the opportunity to take on a short-priced favourite, and this year there may be value in backing Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal or Real Madrid to take Barcelona's crown. At this stage, with Chelsea and Manchester United facing tricky ties in the round of 16 against the two Milan clubs, Real Madrid and Arsenal make most appeal as a pair of teams whose current odds may be too big. Real Madrid take on French fading force Lyon and, with Cristiano Ronaldo fresh and raring to go, they are the pick for outright victory at 5.00. Arsenal face Porto, who are one of the weaker teams left in the competition along with Olympiacos and CSKA Moscow.

Drawn against the latter pair are Bordeaux and Sevilla respectively and, with excellent chances to reach the last eight, those teams are two possibles to cause a surprise by going a long way in the competition.

Sevilla's form in La Liga has been deteriorating - five defeats in eight since the end of the Champions League group stage - but they might be saving their best form for a Champions League push and there have been signs of improvement.

Bordeaux look more solid, leading the French league in pursuit of a second straight title, and their Champions League group form was impressive. Along with Chelsea, they were one of only two teams to go undefeated through their group, which included Bayern Munch and Juventus, and they had the lowest goals-against, just two conceded in six matches.

The other potential surprise team are Fiorentina, who matched Bordeaux with five wins out of six at the group stage and finished top of a group containing Liverpool and Lyon. Like Sevilla, they may see this as their best chance to make a mark in the Champions League.

Look for Fiorentina to keep it tight in their away game at Bayern Munich and back under 2.5 goals. And, with away wins quite a rarity in the first leg at this stage (only three from 16 ties in the past two seasons), backing the home sides on the handicap in the other ties looks a sound polic, those teams are Milan (v Manchester United), Lyon (v Real Madrid) and Porto (v Arsenal).

Goals galore

Domestic visitors to Chelsea, out of 17, who have conceded two goals or more: 15

Travel sickness

Win in eight away games to Premier League opposition for Tottenham: 1

Home, sweet home

Consecutive Southampton-Portsmouth clashes won by the home side: 7

Shortlist: Hoffenheim, Werder Bremen, West Bromwich, Roma, Villarreal, Chievo, Sevilla.

Top five tips

1 Hoffenheim on handicap

Eight wins out of 10 against teams below them in the table

2 Werder Bremen away win

Hosts Hannover are in terrible form, with one point from the last 27 available

3 West Bromwich on handicap

In-form Championship leaders are unbeaten in seven, with five wins

4 Roma home win

Have dropped only six points out of 33 since their last defeat in October

5 Sevilla home win

Signs of a return to their best home form and confidence boosted by cup run


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