The Champions League finishes the first legs of the round of 16 this week, as the eight clubs who didn't play last week return to the competition this week. While this week's matches don't have the natural headline-grabber of last week's PSG vs. Real Madrid match, we have four interesting games to pick apart.
OK, so maybe it's only three interesting matchups and one interesting narrative. Frankly, I don't expect Chelsea to have much trouble with Lille, but the beauty of the Champions League is that we never truly know what will happen. So what will we bet for the match? You'll find out in a few more words, but first, I must remind you that all odds are via Caesars Sportsbook.
Chelsea vs. Lille
Date: Tuesday, Feb. 22 | Time: 3 p.m. | Watch: CBS/Paramount+
Chelsea is the heaviest favorite of the round, and for good reason. They won the Champions League last year and currently sit third in the Premier League. Lille reached the Champions League after shocking the world and winning Ligue 1 last season, edging PSG by a point. Then the wolves came and picked Lille clean, as every team in France that isn't PSG seems to be dealing with financial problems brought on by the pandemic and a terrible TV deal. Now Lille sits in 11th place in Ligue 1, far from the Champions League spots.
As for Chelsea, the big story surrounding the team is Romelu Lukaku's struggles. Lukaku has scored eight goals across all competitions this season, which is second on the team behind Jorginho's nine, but all of Jorginho's goals have been on penalties. Lukaku's goals have come in open play, which leads the team, but he hasn't performed as well as Chelsea would like, given the price they paid to pry him from Inter Milan. In Chelsea's match against Crystal Palace over the weekend, Lukaku only touched the ball seven times, including the opening kick. However, as The Athletic's Liam Twomey pointed out, a lot of that was on Lukaku's teammates, not him. Anyway, the point here is that the narrative surrounding Lukaku at the moment is he's a bust, and it isn't working and blah blah blah. The narrative is ignoring he's the team's leading scorer, and Chelsea will be facing a Lille team that's bled goals all season long. Pick: Romelu Lukaku to score a goal (+105)
Villarreal vs. Juventus
Date: Tuesday, Feb. 22 | Time: 3 p.m. | Watch: Paramount+
There's an excellent chance this turns out to be the most entertaining match of the week. If you don't pay close attention to La Liga, Villarreal is one of the most aggressive teams not only in Spain but in Europe. Villarreal's expected goals (xG) of 42.76 ranks 14th of the 98 teams in Europe's top five leagues. Their xG per shot of 0.137 ranks eighth. It's not a team that takes a lot of shots overall but gets a lot of high-quality chances. Villarreal are also much better at home than on the road.
Juventus have been strong defensively all season but brought in Dusan Vlahovic because scoring goals has been a problem. Dusan has been inconsistent so far for Juve, starting hot and cooling off a bit as of late, but he's still a one-man wrecking crew at times and can make something out of nothing. Against a Villarreal side that can be a bit loose in defense, I think Dusan and Juve find the back of the net at least once. I'm not sure who wins -- though I would bet Villarreal over Juventus -- but I expect goals to be scored. Pick: Both Teams to Score (-110)
Atlético Madrid vs. Manchester United
Date: Wednesday, Feb. 23 | Time: 3 p.m. | Watch: CBS/Paramount+
Atlético Madrid have long been known for their defending under Diego Simeone. They're often described as boring to watch by fans who don't appreciate their pragmatic approach. Well, this season, Atlético have allowed 34 goals in 25 La Liga matches, ranking 42nd of the 98 teams in the Big Five leagues. But is it things falling apart or bad luck? When we look at xG numbers, they suggest luck or terrible goalkeeping from Jan Oblak because the team's xG against of 22.8 ranks fourth! Atlético have allowed 11.2 more goals than expected based on the shots they've faced. Furthermore, only nine of the 34 goals Atlético have allowed in league play have come at home on an xG against of 8.93. It's on the road where they fall apart, but they're at home in this match against Manchester United.
And you'll be shocked to learn that Manchester United are being overvalued on the market. United's defending has been awful this season, as their xG against of 36.92 ranks 66th among Europe's top five leagues and the xG against of 22.18 in 13 road Premier League matches ranks 76th. Yes, they just scored four goals against Leeds, but you and I could score against Leeds right now. Manchester United have had problems all season, and they haven't solved any of them. In a battle of two flawed teams, I'm taking the home squad. Pick: Atlético Madrid (+145)
Benfica vs. Ajax
Date: Wednesday, Feb. 23 | Time: 3 p.m. | Watch: Paramount+
This is the most difficult match for me to handicap because I have the least amount of reliable data on the leagues these two teams come from. So I'm just going to rely on the data my eyes have picked up and mix it with some common sense. Ajax are really freaking good. They play in the Dutch Eredivisie, so few people watch them outside the Champions League, but in 23 league matches, Ajax have scored 70 goals and allowed five. In Champions League group play, Ajax went 6-0 and outscored opponents 20-5, scoring at least two goals in every match. In xG, they outscored opponents 16.3-6.3, so it wasn't fluky.
Those Champions League performances include two wins over Sporting, with Ajax outscoring Sporting 9-3. That's the same Sporting ahead of Benfica in Portugal's Primeira Liga and the same Sporting that beat Benfica 3-1 at Benfica earlier this season. Let's not overthink it. Pick: Ajax (-127)
Europa League bonus: Napoli vs. Barcelona
Date: Thursday, Feb. 24 | Time: 3 p.m. | Watch: Paramount+
Surprise! A Europa League pick! Considering it's the quality of match that could often be found in the Champions League, it made sense to include it this week. These teams played to a 1-1 draw last week, but the result was somewhat misleading. While Napoli's Piotr Zielinski made a terrific play to open the scoring in the match, Napoli never threatened much. They rarely had the ball and managed only four shots (though all were on target) to Barcelona's 20. The xG battle had Barcelona winning 1.99-0.86.
For the return leg in Napoli, I'm not sure how much more potent Napoli will be in attack -- they should still be without both Matteo Politano and Hirving Lozano, which has forced the club to play Eljif Elmas out of position on the wing -- but I'm confident the Partenopei will defend better. Napoli have been outstanding defensively all season long, and at home, they have allowed only an xG of 14.1 in 16 matches between Serie A and the Europa League. As for Barcelona, there are so many new faces in the team's attack, and it feels as if everyone is still trying to figure each other out. That's why I'm going with the under (not including extra time). Pick: Under 2.5 (-110)