If familiarity breeds contempt, then AC Milan and Barcelona must be sick of the sight of each other by now.
The two giants of European football meet at San Siro today in the first leg of the last 16 of the Champions League, but they could be forgiven for getting a wearying sense of déjà vu.
The two games over the next three weeks will be the 11th and 12th occasions Milan have faced Barca since 2004, with both the group stage and the knock-out phase bringing the clubs together with a regularity that seems to take a bit of the gloss off this latest encounter.
I would argue that meeting so frequently – as is becoming commonplace for big sides who qualify for the tournament most years – takes away a lot of the allure that used to come with the competition when running into the same teams was unlikely: you can even play teams from the same country on a regular basis these days.
But nonetheless, a two-legged affair between the Milanese and Catalonian powerhouses is never one to be sniffed at, although it has to be said that Barcelona are, understandably, strong favourites to progress to the quarter-finals.
You don’t really need to me to tell you why, but here is a summary: 12 points clear in La Liga and with just three defeats all season, the Lionel Messi-inspired Spaniards have hit 80 goals in the league alone, and remain everybody’s European champions elect.
Furthermore, Milan are off the pace in Serie A despite lying in third in the table and on course for Champions League qualification once more. Massimiliano Allegri’s side are 11 points behind rivals Juventus and seem unlikely to bridge that gap, even with Mario Balotelli now in their ranks.
But with Super Mario cup-tied after playing earlier in the competition for Manchester City (well he was on the pitch, anyway), Milan have to try and beat Barca without their new talisman, and over two legs that is very unlikely to happen.
And yet, when I look at the prices for the first leg in Italy, I can’t help but think that Barcelona are just too short to be backing to win at the San Siro. Of course, a team as wonderful as Barca can win anywhere against anyone, but odds of just 12/25 to win, with the safety net of a home leg to come, look a bit on the skinny side to me.
So I think I will perform in betting circles what is a sacrilegious act and go against Tito Vilanova’s boys. Milan are 21/4 to take a lead to the Camp Nou with the draw at 13/4, and I’m going to be on a combination of the two.
Milan are 31/20 to avoid defeat, and that looks like a big price to me. Yes, Barca are incredible and yes, this could make me look very foolish, but they do have a rick in them and have shown signs of vulnerability. Defeat away at Celtic was one of five occasions when La Liga leaders have failed to win away from home in 20 games in all competitions this season, and three of those have come in the last five matches.
They haven’t quite looked themselves recently, either. Barca’s defence has failed to keep a clean sheet in the last nine fixtures and have let the opposition score in each of their last seven games on the road.
And with Milan on a good run, winning four of the last five and emerging victorious from seven of their last eight home matches (the loss was a dead rubber against Zenit St Petersburg), I am going to go with the 31/20 that the Rossoneri can nick a result to take back to Spain with them. Back against Barcelona is normally the quickest way to the poor house, but this just might be one time to do it.