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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 April, 2010, 12:00am

The FA Cup and the Champions League are telling similar stories this season, with the reigning champions strong favourites to retain their crown in the face of opposition from a couple of rejuvenated big names trying to recapture former glories and one surprise interloper.

In the FA Cup, Chelsea are 1.75 favourites to become the first team to lift the trophy in successive seasons since Arsenal in 2002 and 2003. Even more significantly in Carlo Ancelotti's first season in charge, Chelsea's league victory at Old Trafford last weekend has put them in line to complete the first double since Arsenal in 2002. That would be some achievement, as the double was commonplace in the 1990s but has become more difficult with the emergence of a dominant big four in the past decade.

A big-four team have won the FA Cup in all but one of the past 14 years, so Chelsea clearly deserve to be strong favourites and there will not be too many prepared to bet against them in tonight's semi-final against Aston Villa following their 7-1 demolition of Martin O'Neill's team in the league fixture at Stamford Bridge just a fortnight ago.

Villa, for so long one of the sleeping giants of English football, have been reawakened by O'Neill and this season's cup exploits and standout wins in big games have been particularly impressive. They have shown signs of tiredness in the past six weeks, since their League Cup final defeat by Manchester United, but their earlier results - including a home win over Chelsea and victory at Old Trafford - still make them dangerous if they get the right breaks tonight.

One scenario is that Villa score first, and in the league they have lost only once in 18 games from that position. Chelsea, meanwhile, have won only half their games when conceding the first goal.

It is difficult to be confident about Villa reproducing their best form and to go against Chelsea, but still this might not be as easy as the odds suggest.

Tottenham - who, like Villa, are one of the top five most successful clubs in the FA Cup - are hot favourites to beat Portsmouth in the other semi-final and go on to face Chelsea in the final.

Harry Redknapp is the only manager in the past 14 years to have led a non-big four club to FA Cup success and, having achieved that feat with Pompey in 2008, he is trying to do the same with Tottenham. The gap between his current team and his old club in the league table is a yawning 35 points, even without taking into account Portsmouth's points deduction, and there is a strong trend for the better team to win FA Cup ties in the later rounds of the competition.

Again it is difficult to oppose the favourites with confidence - Tottenham have won the two league meetings 2-0 at home and 2-1 away - but Portsmouth have not been easy to roll over this season (almost 60% of their league games have had no more than a single goal between the sides). The best value in the two semi-finals might lie in betting on two low-scoring encounters, which goes against what the odds suggest but would be in line with the trend of recent semis.

The title-defining clash in the European leagues this weekend is El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona, which promises to be a cracker. The two teams are locked together at the top of Spain's Primera Liga, on 77 points apiece with eight games to play, and a victory is likely to decide the issue.

Last week's top-of-the-table matches in England and Germany both ended with a 2-1 win for the away team and there will be plenty of backers willing to bet on Barcelona following Lionel Messi's mesmerising masterclass against Arsenal in the Champions League.

Recent history is with Barcelona, who have beaten Real in all three games under Pep Guardiola, including a 6-2 victory in this fixture last season.

While Barcelona have been taking all the plaudits around Europe, Real's early departure from the Champions League means they have not gained full credit for keeping pace with Barca at the top of the table. That has been no mean feat, with both teams averaging 2.57 points per game, and if Barca are the best team in Europe, then Real must be right up there too, especially as Lyon, the team who knocked them out of the Champions League, have reached the semi-finals.

Real have won their last 12 league games, a run linked closely to Cristiano Ronaldo's return from injury in January, and the sub-plot of the battle for supremacy between Ronaldo and Messi adds extra spice.

At home Real have been unstoppable, with victory in all 15 league games, and on that basis they look good value. Barca clearly are the best team to have visited the Bernabeu, but if there is a weakness in Guardiola's team it is their away record against the top teams. They have drawn their two away ties in the knockout stage of the Champions League - against Stuttgart and Arsenal - and in the Primera Liga their win rate against other top-half teams is 50 per cent, which is good but not outstanding.

Real are more likely winners with home advantage and, despite last weekend's away successes in the big games, the percentage play again is to back the home side on the handicap.

Stroll in the park

Consecutive wins for Chelsea in FA Cup ties: 10

Iron curtain defence

Goal conceded by Chelsea in four rounds of this year's FA Cup: 1

Red-hot Harry

Defeats for Harry Redknapp in his last 17 FA Cup ties: 2

Shortlist: Schalke, Cologne, Bristol Rovers, Boulogne, Monaco, Sochaux, Getafe, Real Madrid, Auxerre, Lyon, Mallorca

Top five bets

1 Schalke away win

Can reignite title challenge with victory at struggling Hannover

2 Bristol Rovers away win

Promotion still a possibility and their form is holding up well

3 Getafe on handicap

Good recent away form can continue against bottom club Xerez

4 Auxerre on handicap

Unbeaten in 10 and particularly solid on the road

5 Mallorca home win

Excellent at home and can complete a bad week for Valencia

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