Of course the Champions League is the competition that every team wants to be playing in, but I have to say the UEFA decision to award a place in that competition to the winner of the Europa League has certainly improved the prestige of the secondary competition.
For teams like Manchester United and Liverpool, the Europa League now becomes an 'easier' route to get into the Champions League which means they will be taking this very seriously. In all honesty they would be foolish to do anything else.
The First Legs of these Knock Out ties are very important in a busy time of the season for teams around Europe and I am looking forward to them through the week.
Benfica v Zenit St Petersburg Pick: There is obviously a financially prize for winning this tie and the prestige of reaching the last eight in the Champions League is a big motivation factor for both Benfica and Zenit St Petersburg. Not many would look at the tie as one where the winner is a favourite to go on and win the Champions League and it is one of the weaker looking Second Round ties when you consider which others are to come.
That won't matter to the fans who will be desperate to see their club rubbing shoulders with the elite of European Football in the Quarter Finals.
I do feel the edge belongs to Benfica who are at home in the First Leg and playing a Zenit St Petersburg team who are coming off their long Winter Break. Benfica have generally been very strong at home although the concern has to be that their 3 defeats in 15 games at the Stadium of Light have come against Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Atletico Madrid, the three toughest opponents they have hosted.
This is a Zenit St Petersburg team who have already won at Valencia and Lyon in the Group Stage so underestimating them would be a real concern. I can't see that happening after Benfica were beaten twice by them in the Group Stage last season, but the impending departure of Andre Villas-Boas has seen inconsistent results from Zenit St Petersburg through the season.
Zenit St Petersburg either seem to win or lose in their away games in the Champions League and they did only win 1 of their last 7 away games in all competitions going into the Winter Break. The fact they lost 3 of those in a row culminating in their defeat at Gent is another concern, but the long break from competitive action means recent form is simply not there.
I'd be surprised if this tie is concluded at the end of the First Leg, but I can see Benfica taking a narrow lead to Russia next month. I give Benfica the slight edge in this one and will have an interest in the home win.
Paris Saint-Germain v Chelsea Pick: This does look like one of the better ties of the Second Round in the Champions League as two teams desperate for success at the highest level meet. Both Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea have become familiar with one another in recent seasons with this being the third straight year the meet in the Champions League Knock Out Stage, but I think the layers are finding it harder to separate them than perhaps I am.
I really do think Paris Saint-Germain are a potential dark horse to win the Champions League if their Group performances against Real Madrid are anything to go by. Paris Saint-Germain were arguably the better team in both of those Group games but were only rewarded with a goalless draw at home and a narrow 1-0 defeat away from home.
Getting up to those levels again will make Paris Saint-Germain a strong favourite, but I would be concerned they have such a big lead in the French domestic League. Roy Keane said that was an issue for Manchester United in the early part of this Century as they couldn't raise their level from the one needed to win the Premier League when they met the big hitters in the Champions League.
Yes some will say that PSG can rest players to keep them fresh, but building the momentum can be tough when you are not being tested weekly as they may like.
There is plenty of attacking talent Paris Saint-Germain can call upon though and I think the will give Chelsea so much to think about through the two Legs. For as set Chelsea have been since Guus Hiddink took over, they have not exactly been firing as much as a 12 game unbeaten run will suggest and I think the goals they have been conceding at Stamford Bridge will come back to haunt them at some point in the Champions League.
However away from home Chelsea have looked to be a little more solid and hard to beat and that is shown up by conceding just one goal in their 5 away games under Hiddink. I can imagine they come to the French capital with an idea that keeping a clean sheet could set them up for the win on the counter with Paris Saint-Germain likely to be pushing forward for much of the game.
I'm just not sure they will keep out Paris Saint-Germain knowing the chances this team creates at home. Chelsea were fortunate to get away with a 1-1 draw last season and I think there will be goals in this one with the expectation that Paris Saint-Germain have some sort of lead to take to Stamford Bridge next month.
It might not be the decisive lead that short odds on the home win suggest though and I think backing at least three goals to be shared out looks a more intriguing option at a big price. I have no idea how last season's game didn't hit the target like the year before and there is enough attacking talent, and defensive vulnerabilities, on the field to think they won't be as profligate in front of goal this time around.
Gent v Wolfsburg Pick: This tie might not have the star power of Paris Saint-Germain versus Chelsea, Arsenal versus Barcelona or Juventus versus Bayern Munich, but both Gent and Wolfsburg could give us two entertaining games.
Neither Gent nor Wolfsburg are going to be considering their chances of winning the Champions League at anything higher than extremely unlikely. However both will know they won't have many better chances of getting into the Quarter Finals and really bringing a truly big European team in for a Champions League tie.
I think the First Leg could certainly produce some goals with Gent knowing this is their chance to give themselves something to defend in Germany. They will be boosted in the knowledge that they have such a strong home record and have beaten both Valencia and Zenit St Petersburg here, while Wolfsburg have conceded three time in each of their last 3 games which have all resulted in a loss.
On the other hand, Wolfsburg are capable of getting forward and scoring goals too even in the absence of Bas Dost who hadn't really lit up the Group Stage anyway. He is a big focal point though which takes something away from Wolfsburg although it might mean they rely more on the speed of the counter attack which should be effective as Gent push forward.
I like the chance of seeing goals here in an important First Leg for both teams should see attack being used to set up the Second Leg. At odds against, backing at least three goals to be shared out looks the call.
Roma v Real Madrid Pick: This is very much a tie where Real Madrid will be favourites to move through to the Quarter Finals, but the most intriguing aspect is whether Roma can be the latest to expose their recent away day vulnerabilities. If Roma can take a lead to Madrid next month, they will have to feel they have half a chance of springing the upset, but this club have struggled at home in the Champions League.
Failing to beat BATE Borisov in their last game here almost cost Roma a place in the Second Round and their game with Barcelona might have ended 1-1, but the Catalan giants had the majority of the play in that one.
You do have to take into account the recent struggles Real Madrid have had away from home in recent games and also in the Champions League where they have won just 2 of 5 on their travels. However, the majority of those failures have come against the very best teams and Real Madrid have only lost 1 of 10 away games in the Champions League.
It is an interesting First Leg because Roma have to feel their best chance of progressing comes in the Italian capital. Anything less than a win and Real Madrid will be heavy favourites, but pushing too far forward leaves them very vulnerable to the counter attack that Real Madrid employ so effectively.
I do think Real Madrid will be a little too strong in this First Leg too as Roma perhaps try to get their noses in front here. The draw with Barcelona is a good result that Roma can hold onto, but they need more here and I think Real Madrid can catch them out on the break.
Roma have lost to the likes of Bayern Munich and Manchester City here last season and I am not sure this team is much better a little over twelve months later. Real Madrid are a bigger price than Barcelona were to win here, which makes sense, but it is an appealing one for me and I will back them to win.
Borussia Dortmund v Porto Pick: There are a few ties in the Last 32 of the Europa League that really leap off the page and this is clearly one of those. The winner of the Borussia Dortmund and Porto tie are likely to be placed either as favourites or very near the top of the outright markets and it looks a very good tie that could entertain in both legs.
I did fancy Borussia Dortmund would have a First Leg advantage but some suggestions that an illness is sweeping through the squad has to be a concern. However this is a team that will look to get on the front foot no matter who they are playing and I expect Borussia Dortmund will put Porto under immense pressure.
On the other hand, Porto are a decent team and they did exit the Champions League despite earning 10 points in the Group Stage which is usually enough to qualify for the Last 16. That makes them dangerous and I expect Borussia Dortmund are regretting the failure to win their own Group which would have meant being paired with an 'Unseeded' team.
Goals haven't been a problem for Borussia Dortmund in front of one of the most passionate set of fans in European football. I do think they will create chances to win the game, but Porto will also be able to get forward and score goals as they proved in a 1-2 win in Benfica.
Even when crushed by Bayern Munich in the Quarter Final last season, Porto did score in that 6-1 loss in the Second Leg and I am looking for this game to entertain the crowd as at least three goals are shared out. It should set up the Second Leg in Porto next week and the layers have perhaps overpriced the chances of goals being shared out on Thursday.
Midtjylland v Manchester United Pick: When the draw for the Europa League was made, Manchester United had to be considered big favourites to see off Midtjylland and I don't think enough has changed since December to change that opinion. For as bad as some of Manchester United's results have been, Midtjylland went into their Winter Break on a really poor run and now have to hope their physical fitness levels are up to the standard of an English Premier League team.
There won't be too many surprises for the Danish Champions having beaten Southampton already, but I am not convinced that they didn't just run into that side at the right time. Midtjylland backed their way into the Last 32 of the Europa League when you consider they earned just 7 points and they were comprehensively outplayed by Napoli in both games.
An easier way to see things is the way Midtjylland played against Club Brugge, a team Manchester United beat convincingly over two legs in the Champions League Play Offs. Midtjylland did win impressively in Belgium too, but the Napoli results really highlight how short this team is of the better teams in European football.
It could have been different if Manchester United were fighting for the Premier League title or perhaps in a position where they were very close to the top four, but I think the defeat to Sunderland means Louis Van Gaal focuses on this competition. With a few days rest before the FA Cup Fifth Round tie at Shrewsbury, I think the manager plays a very strong team in the hope he can rest a few players for the Second Leg which comes a few days before Manchester United host Arsenal in a huge Premier League game.
That looks like it could be the approach considering the dejected manner in which Van Gaal suggested the top four was out of reach after the defeat at Sunderland. That isn't quite the case following Manchester City's loss on Sunday, but it is clear the Europa League is very important now for Manchester United.
And it has to be said that Manchester United have been playing a lot better over the last couple of weeks- they hammered both Derby County and Stoke City and should have won at Chelsea when leading with seconds left. The fitness levels should give Manchester United the edge in this one and I can see them pick off a tiring Midtjylland side in the later stages, especially if the defensive vulnerabilities that saw the home side conceded four in back to back games here to Napoli and Viborg show up in the First Leg.
EDIT: The loss of Wayne Rooney is likely to be felt in games to come in the next six weeks, but I still think Manchester United will be too good for the likes of Midtjylland and Shrewsbury upcoming.
Fiorentina v Tottenham Hotspur Pick: For the second time in a row, Fiorentina and Tottenham Hotspur will meet in the Last 32 of the Europa League, although this time it is the Italian team that will be hosting the First Leg. There are other similarities- both teams are desperate to get into the Champions League this season, but need to find the balance between domestic and European commitments if they are to stay alive in both competitions.
There is no denying how impressive Tottenham Hotspur were for large patches of their 1-2 win at Manchester City which not only improves their top four chances, but makes them a genuine Premier League title contender. There are some big matches to come for Tottenham Hotspur and I would be very surprised if there isn't some squad rotation for this one.
It isn't the deepest squad so Mauricio Pochettino will have to play his cards just right, while the manager is also improving his CV all the time which will attract the interest of Chelsea and Manchester United.
The rotation expected could make Tottenham Hotspur a little vulnerable in the First Leg, but Fiorentina might also decide to switch things around. Like their visitors, Fiorentina are currently occupying a Champions League spot through their League position, but they are less involved in any Serie A title challenge.
Fiorentina have enjoyed their run in the Europa League over the last couple of years, but they may also make some changes knowing they can secure Champions League football with a strong end to their League campaign. Neither team will really want to drop this chance to have two shots at reaching the biggest competition in European football, but both managers might play their squads and hope to progress.
It is a tough game to read- I fancied Fiorentina, but they had just as big a League win as Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday so perhaps the emotional edge isn't there. Fiorentina have dominated English teams at home, winning their last 4 by the same 2-0 scoreline including against Tottenham Hotspur, but they had lost 3 Europa League games in a row at home before beating Belenenses.
That, coupled with some of the suggestions out of White Hart Lane that Tottenham Hotspur will still give this competition the due respect, has put me off the home win. I do think both teams could see this as a 'nothing to lose' kind of tie where they can push for the victory in both Legs and I can see goals being shared out.
As well as Tottenham Hotspur have defended this season, they have a tendency to play higher-scoring away games and Fiorentina have seen 3 of their last 4 at home have at least three goals scored, albeit one of those fortunately. Last season it was 2-0, but I think this will be a narrower margin of victory for Fiorentina as Tottenham Hotspur get an away goal to take back to North London.
However, rather than backing the home win, I am going to pay respect to Tottenham Hotspur and back at least three goals to be shared knowing how well the English side are playing. Fiorentina lost 2 of their 3 Group games at home and both defeats came by the same 1-2 scoreline so there is every chance Spurs have a lead next week, but goals looks the better option than picking a winner in a First Leg that looks to go 2-1 either way.
Augsburg v Liverpool Pick: The Europa League has taken on a big importance for Liverpool as their best chance of getting into the Champions League next season and I do think they will take this competition seriously. Being out of the FA Cup means they can focus on the First Leg knowing they have seven days to prepare for the return leg at Anfield and Liverpool will head to Germany looking to back up the destruction of Aston Villa last Sunday.
There is no doubting how important the return of Daniel Sturridge is for Liverpool as he seems to fit what Jurgen Klopp is trying to implement far more than Christian Benteke. Having a focal point is huge for Liverpool but the challenge is keeping Sturridge fit for the rest of the season.
If Liverpool can do that, they will have a very good chance of winning the Europa League in my opinion as they narrow their focus on this competition. There are some very good teams in the competition, but Liverpool have shown some solid Cup success over the last two years to think they will get close.
Augsburg have shown they are no pushovers, but their focus has got to be on the Bundesliga where they are battling against relegation. Despite coming through a tough Group, it has to be a concern that Augsburg lost 2 of their 3 home games and didn't keep a clean sheet, especially when it comes to the Knock Out Stage.
I am not convinced that Liverpool should be the favourites here, at least not as short as they are. However I do think they will create chances in what looks like being an entertaining game as Augsburg will also push forward to score goals. All of Augsburg's home Group games featured at least three goals and I would rather back that happening again than Liverpool at the same price.
It does look like a game that will likely end with a 2-1 scoreline either way and I will back goals to be the outcome of this First Leg.
Sporting Lisbon v Bayer Leverkusen Pick: This is the second of two Portugal versus Germany Last 32 ties in the Europa League, except the First Leg of this one will be played in Portugal. Like the one involving Borussia Dortmund and Porto, I am expecting Sporting Lisbon and Bayer Leverkusen to perhaps follow suit and produce goals in the First Leg.
Both teams will have reasons to believe they are going to come through the tie, but the First Leg is clearly more important for Sporting Lisbon to have some sort of lead to take to Germany. The key for Bayer Leverkusen is to earn an away goal or two and they will be confident having scored in every away game in the Group Stage of the Champions League, although they also conceded at least once in each game.
When looking at the Sporting Lisbon home games in European football, you will see that 6 of the last 6 here have produced at least three goals shared out including all 3 they played in the Europa League Group and the one in the Champions League Play Off.
Scoring goals hasn't been a big issue for either team, but defensively they have also looked like a couple of sides that will concede goals. The general feeling the public have is that the First Legs of these ties are tight as neither team wants to give anything away, but Sporting Lisbon must feel their best chance of progressing is by winning and Bayer Leverkusen have a tendency to score goals on their travels.
My overall feeling is that Sporting Lisbon will take a lead to Germany, but this is going to be a tie finely balanced for the Second Leg and I will back at least three goals to be shared here.
Valencia v Rapid Vienna Pick: Gary Neville finally oversaw a La Liga win for Valencia last weekend, but he can at least point to more positive results in the Cup competitions, barring the 7-0 humiliation at Barcelona. His interest in the Europa League has to be intense as Valencia were expected to be back in the Champions League next season and this is Valencia's best chance of reaching that competition.
The tie with Rapid Vienna looks far from straight-forward to be very honest as this is a team that can score goals and has already been to Ajax and won this season. However the 1-0 loss in Villarreal should make sure Valencia are focused as that is a team that has been far stronger in Spain than Valencia have been.
Rapid Vienna haven't been in the best form of late which is a concern as the Europa League gets going again. They had lost 3 away games in a row in all competitions before a very good win over rivals Austria Vienna last time out and Rapid Vienna have lost 5 of their last 8 on their travels.
The confidence in the Valencia squad has to be improved by finally winning a League game and I think they can back that up with another win, a first back to back success for Neville in his short managerial career. The home advantage is key, but I would be surprised if Valencia have this tie firmly in hand at the end of the first ninety minutes played.
A narrow home win is the feeling I am getting from this game as Rapid Vienna perhaps aren't as good on their travels than they have been at home. I also think the tie will still be in the balance when they reconvene in Austria next week, but backing Valencia to have a lead is my pick.
MY PICKS: Benfica @ 2.15 Bet365 (2 Units)
Paris Saint-Germain-Chelsea Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.30 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
Gent-Wolfsburg Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.05 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
Real Madrid @ 1.83 William Hill (2 Units)
Borussia Dortmund-Porto Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.83 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Manchester United - 1 Asian Handicap @ 2.50 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Fiorentina-Tottenham Hotspur Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.15 Coral (2 Units)
Augsburg-Liverpool Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.10 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Sporting Lisbon-Bayer Leverkusen Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.00 Bet365 (2 Units)
Valencia @ 1.80 William Hill (2 Units)
January Final: 19-13, + 17.56 Units (61 Units Staked, + 28.79% Yield)
December Final: 15-23, - 9.32 Units (64 Units Staked, - 14.56% Yield)
Season 2015/16: 87-128-5, - 38.37 Units (467 Units Staked, - 8.22% Yield)