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Europa League Preview

Athletic Bilbao v Sporting Lisbon, 20:05

A tense but exciting first leg in Lisbon was won by the Portuguese outfit, but by the slimmest of margins and with an away goal conceded. Bilbao are a side with masses of quality and potential, but the tactical nous of the Lisbon players and manager will make this a much harder game than their earlier ties, which they won fairly easily. Sporting will have noted from other European ties this week that goals already scored become more valuable as games go on and the tension rises, and with key attacking players returning to the team they have the quality to hit their hosts on the break.

Athletic Bilbao midfielder Oscar De Marcos is suspended, but Iker Muniain and Javi Martinez should return, as will Fernando Llorente, who was rested for most of the last Liga match. Sporting are without Russian playmaker Marat Izmailov, who is suspended. He will be replaced either by Andre Martins or Jeffren. Chile midfielder Matias Fernandez is also set to return after two games out injured, but Rinaudo and Alberto Rodriguez are out. You can get 88/25 with BetFair on Llorente to score first if you fancy his chances.

 

Valencia v Atletico Madrid, 20:05

The Valencia coach Unai Emery has made all the right noises ahead of this game, but the reality of trying to overturn the 4-2 loss in the first leg is a very sobering one. The manager at the Mestalla looks to be leaving his post in the summer, with his contract set to expire and the club talking about replacements, so he’ll want to go out on a high, but if he can mastermind a win it will be a truly herculean effort. Atletico will be frustrated after their performance in the first leg, as they dominated their opponents for pretty much the whole game, only to be picked off twice by sharp attackers, and will want to be more alert tonight.

Valencia are expected to stick with the same team that thrashed Real Betis 4-0 at the weekend, except Diego Alves will replace Vicente Guaita in goal, as he has done in the cup competitions this season. The home side have four players back from suspension in Tino Costa, Jeremy Mathieu, Aritz Aduriz and Pablo Hernandez – with Ever Banega the only injury. Atletico have a close to fully fit squad, with only Silvio Azevedo and Antonio Lopez injured, and Fran Merida cup-tied. Ladbrokes have 10/3 on Valencia winning by a one-goal margin, which wouldn’t be enough to take them through, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a fair few scored.

Atletico Madrid v Valencia, 20:05

You’d think, seeing as Valencia are third in the Spanish table, that they’d be a strong favourite for this, but when you realise they are a massive 29 points back on second placed Barcelona it becomes more clear that third in the BBVA isn’t all that. Atletico have a fair few players who have gone a long way in European competition, and will very much fancy their chances of going to the final of this tournament, which would certainly please their supporters and big-spending owners.

Atletico Madrid will have to make do without influential defender Diego Godin for the first leg as the Uruguayan will miss the match through suspension, while club captain Antonio Lopez and Silvio Pereira are doubts. Valencia’s Hedwiges Maduro and Sergio Canales are unlikely to be fit to make this match. Victor Ruiz is thought to be fit enough to feature, Ricardo Costa may come in at right back as Antonio Barragan is suspended, and Ever Banega is out for the season after. Falcao, of Madrid, is 4/1 with BetFred to open the scoring, and he certainly has the skill to trouble any defence.

 

Sporting v Athletic Bilbao, 20:05

These two have already shown the best of English football how to play in Europe, and their meeting will be a really high-class affair. Over the coming few months Bilbao are going to struggle to hold on to some of their best young players but right at this moment they are a joy to watch and the kind of side that combines near-telepathic understanding and excellent desire to produce a very good end result. The Portuguese giants have seen Benfica and Porto steal a march on them in recent times, and will want to put the famous green-and-white hoops back into a major final.

Sporting’s Bruno Pereirinha and Oguchi Onyewu will most likely not feature, Jeffren Suarez is in doubt for the match because of fitness problems, while Fito Rinaudo and Alberto Rodriguez have been ruled out. Sporting coach Ricardo Sa Pinto will also not be able to count on Elias, who is ineligible. Athletic’s young charger Iker Muniain is fit, but although Carlos Gurpegui flew with the rest of the team Lisbon after a six-month absence following a knee ligament injury, but he is expected to be left out of the match squad, and Javi Martinez misses out due to suspension. The 7/2 with Bet365 on a home win by a 1-goal margin seems fair, but I like Bilbao over two legs.

Athletic Bilbao v Manchester United, 18:00 (agg. 3-2)

Winning in Spain is not beyond Manchester United, especially when you consider just how far back on Real and Barcelona their hosts tonight are. However, when you consider the degree of control and skill the Spaniards showed in the first leg of this tie, virtually playing Sir Alex Ferguson’s men off the park at times, it becomes a rather less probable result.

There were points in the Old Trafford game where United looked good to go on and control the tie, potentially moving toward a game against City later on, but the reality is that a combination of tactical failures and inconsistency from the likes of Nani and Hernandez has left them on the brink. The club has never looked stellar in Europe under Ferguson, despite dominating the domestic scene, but this would represent a new low for them on the continental stage. Ladbrokes have 6/1 on Llorente scoring first, and the big forward had no trouble with the United defence when last they met.

 

Manchester City v Sporting Lisbon, 20:05 (agg. 0-1)

When Manchester City boarded the plane in Portugal to return after their 1-0 loss things didn’t seem all that bad. They only needed to get a routine win in Wales in the interim, and the deficit was nowhere near insurmountable. Things didn’t go to plan in Wales, though, and now they are hanging in there in the Premier League title race in a way that hasn’t been seen all season. United are by no means favourites, especially when you consider the 6-1 tonking they took at the hands of their rivals and the fact they must play City again in the league, but the heat is definitely on.

With the pressure coming from Old Trafford Roberto Mancini now has the option of throwing his hands up and his reserves out onto the pitch, and admitting to the world that the domestic title is key to City this year. You suspect that the Champions League will be a more serene affair for the men in light blue next season, but for him to add the jewels onto an already glittering squad it would help to be the best side in country, and have the baubles to prove it. BetFair have 41/5 on a 3-0 City win, something very possible if the away side don’t travel well.

Manchester United v Athletic Bilbao, 20:05

After overcoming a pretty decent Ajax side with something to spare United could have wished for an easier draw, but the reality is that at this stage there are no real minnows left in the competition. As much as I despise the practise of dropping big teams into the Europa League as a reward for their failures in the group stages of the Champions League, if United and City make the effort to win this competition it will be improved for that. The Spaniards are used to big games, but will struggle to match the home side at full strength, although they will bring a couple of talented young players with them.

Anderson could return for Manchester United as he has recovered from a knee injury suffered on 8th January. Chris Smalling (head) and Tom Cleverley (ankle) are also in the frame but Paul Scholes is expected to miss out. Wayne Rooney is a 4/1 favourite with Ladbrokes to open the scoring, if the mercurial lump starts.

 

Sporting v Manchester City, 18:00

Manchester City travel to Portugal to take on possibly the weakest of the traditional big three sides in that country. Porto and Benfica have made serious dents on Europe in recent years and to some extent the former giants of Sporting have been left behind, both on the recruitment front and that of trophies. City have struggled on the road so far this year, at least on the continent, and Roberto Mancini will no doubt make clear to his players that they must stamp their dominance on the game from minute one.

Manchester City will be without midfielder Yaya Toure for the trip to Portugal to face Sporting, as he is suspended. Defender Pablo Zabaleta (hamstring) is also out but Micah Richards could return to replace him at right-back. Although back in training, Carlos Tevez is not registered to play in the Europa League along with midfielder Owen Hargreaves. I think a 1-1 draw is the most likely, and WilliamHill offer 13/2 on such an outcome.

Manchester United v Ajax, 20:05 (agg. 2-0)

After a very good performance in Amsterdam Sir Alex Ferguson will no doubt be judiciously parcelling out his resources for this game, unwilling to use more than is required given the paucity of options he has in comparison to his neighbours, recently enriched with Carlos Tevez. It represents a chance to play the likes of Cleverley, returning from and injury, and some of the less-used players, but Ajax must be respected. However, it is possible the Dutch outfit will view this game as a mission too far, and throw out a reserve team themselves, although I expect a few of the first-team would like a chance to play at Old Trafford.

Striker Wayne Rooney will miss the game due to a throat infection. Sir Alex Ferguson said he was resting the 26-year-old in the hope he will be available for Sunday’s Premier League game at Norwich. Tom Cleverley is expected to be fit to play 90 minutes after recovering from an ankle injury. Ladbrokes have 10/3 on another United win by 2 goals, and I expect Ferguson to emphasise the need to protect their lead as much as add to it.

 

Valencia v Stoke, 18:00 (agg. 1-0)

Stoke have a fairly monumental challenge ahead of them this evening, but as one of the clubs genuinely pleased to be in the Europa League I expect them to give it everything they have. Valencia got a 1-0 win in the first leg, something I sure will have pleased the Spaniards even if they would prefer to play it cool, and for the Potters to prevent the home team from scoring whilst presenting a threat themselves is a massive ask. I’ve no doubt Valencia will expect to qualify, but some at that club were surprised by the challenge little Stoke presented, and they will give ample respect to their visitors for the full ninety minutes to ensure success.

For Stoke injury is starting to tell, and Ryan Shawcross, Glenn Whelan, Marc Wilson, Dean Whitehead, Matthew Etherington, Jon Walters and Peter Crouch all do not travel due to knocks or fatigue. Robert Huth is due to start, but with a squad of just 15 players Pulis will struggle to pull off a win, and I can see Roberto Soldado taking advantage. He is 4/1 with VictorChandler to score 2 or more goals, and put Stoke out of the Europa League in all probability.

 

Manchester City v Porto, 17:00 (2-1 agg.)

To begin with, a blunt fact. Porto have never beaten an English side away in European competition, and if that statistic remains at full-time in this game City will go through. It is worth mentioning that City have sent a dossier to UEFA regarding the racial abuse of their players, and this accusation is sure to add a bit of spice to proceedings, especially if Balotelli has a part to play. Despite a couple of cup losses, Roberto Mancini hasn’t seen his side do anything less than win in the league at the Etihad this season, and will be confident of progress if his side play to their potential. The fitness of Yaya Toure will need to be monitored to avoid injury after a taxing few months, but the Italian just had the added bonus of an apology from Carlos Tevez, adding another potential match-winner to his ranks of stars.

In fact, a thawing in that relationship could be construed as a victory for the manager, as he stood firm and won the day without losing his former captain, and if Tevez plays a part in a title win many sins may be forgiven, or at least forgotten. Manchester City have no new injury worries for their last 32 clash with Porto, who they lead 2-1 from the first leg. There is no place for Carlos Tevez or Owen Hargreaves who are not registered to play in the competition, but the competition for selection will be fierce. BetFair have 41/5 on City winning 2-0, but a lot will depend on how much the Porto boss is prepared to risk in trying to overturn a home loss.

 

 

Ajax v Manchester United, 18:00

To be honest the Premier League sides have drawn a rather poisoned chalice from the Europa League fire, to horribly mix some metaphors. Whilst United only have a short journey to a top club, they may have hoped for a rather less challenging opponent and atmosphere, and the test on their resources will be greater for the need to play a properly competitive eleven. Having said that, this Ajax team pales in comparison to the ’94 outfit, so Ferguson may take a calculated risk on a few of his younger stars.

Manchester United will rest Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov for this game, but Nani and defender Phil Jones have been named in the 20-man squad having recovered from injury, as have Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley. Youngsters Paul Pogba and Zeki Fryers are also in the squad for the match in Amsterdam. Bet365 have 14/1 on a 2-1 home win, and I’m torn between that and 1-1.

 

Porto v Manchester City, 20:05

If you stop listening to FIFA for a second and cast your mind across Europe, you’d struggle to find two more exciting sides than City and Porto. The blues of Manchester may well be the last side constructed for such a huge amount of money, and Porto is not just a hotbed for the future stars on the pitch, but is becoming well-known for producing top managers to go with it. They played well against Barca in the season-opener in Monaco, and Mancini will know very well than even a draw in Portugal is a proud achievement.

Manchester City welcome back midfielder Yaya Toure and defender Kolo Toure, who are due to join up with the squad on Wednesday. Striker Mario Balotelli may also play after serving a domestic suspension. However, fellow forward Carlos Tevez, who has returned from his self-imposed exile in Argentina, is not registered to play. BlueSquare have 15/2 on Porto winning by 2 goals, but a good City performance could see them take home a draw.

 

Stoke v Valencia, 20:05

This wouldn’t have sounded a very likely fixture a few years back, but Stoke have come a long way in a short time and we’ll soon know if Valencia can do it on a cold Thursday night in Stoke. My guess is that the likes of the Spanish giants, much reduced by sales and financial mismanagement, will find it very hard to counter the Stoke set-pieces, but the flip side will be the technical difference between the Spaniards and their hosts, making this a truly fascinating contest.

Stoke will be without defender Matthew Upson for the Europa League match against Valencia after he was sent off in the Potters’ final group game. His place is likely to go to Robert Huth, who is currently serving a three-match Premier League ban. Roberto Soldado is the favourite to score first, with BetFred offering 11/2 on it.

Shamrock Rovers v Tottenham, GpA, 18:00

There are some games that you feel you’d rather not choose a winner for, or rather pick the result, and this is one of them. If Tottenham had put out their first eleven for just four games in this group they’d have qualified quite easily, and even with the arrival of City and the like from the Champions League you’d fancy a fit Spurs team to get to the final. However, with the form in the Premier League excellent, and the financial reward in the Europa League considered paltry, Spurs have chosen not to qualify.

This almost seems like match-fixing (but it is not, I realise), and is in stark contrast to the fine handed down to Wolves for ‘devaluing the Premier League’.  It seems as though the reservists will start the game, so don’t expect goals for Bale or Modric, but the 7/2 on a 2 goal Spurs win with Ladbrokes could be good. Ideally I think Harry wants to win the game, just not by enough to risk qualifying.

Birmingham v NK Maribor, GpH, 20:05

Devalued as it may be, the Europa League has been brilliant for Birmingham this season. Unfortunately they will bow out barring a fortuitous set of results after this match, but the Blues have proven the Championship as good a league as any in Europe, and will want to be bottom side Maribor to give the home fans something to cheer about. If Braga beat Bruges in the other game and Brum win they’ll have significantly more good health to drink to, and the prospect of more European trips come 2012.

The home side won the reverse fixture 2-1, and you can expect to see a fairly good team put out by Chris Hughton despite the heavy toll of league football, and the demand for promotion. 888Sport have 15/2 on a 2-1 home win, but I really don’t have a clue as to whether that will be enough. Part of me is concerned that Braga and Bruges will play out a draw, knowing that if they take no risks they both go through.

 

Udinese v Celtic, GpI, 20:05

Celtic have a monumental task ahead of them, knowing that they must beat Udinese to qualify for the next round, and on Italian soil at that. The home side only need a draw, but the fact captain Antonio Di Natale, who has not played in Europe up until this point, has asked to play in this game shows just how serious Udinese are about progressing. Emilio Izaguirre, Joe Ledley, Glenn Loovens, Adam Matthew and Kris Commons are all out for Celtic, to further add to their woes, and I don’t think anyone will be surprised if they come up short despite an heroic effort.

As hard as Celtic will try I reckon the 13/2 with Bet365 on a 2-0 home win could well come up trumps, and as sad as that will make the travelling fans it could well be the turning point in their league campaign.

Besiktas v Stoke, GpE, 18:00

Tony Pulis will be feeling unusually pleased with the work both he and his players have done up until this point on the flight over to Turkey, as he knows that whatever happens Stoke will be in the next round of the Europa League. The home side only need to take a draw from this encounter to go through, and that is a result that would definitely suit Stoke, but a combination of the astonishing atmosphere generated by the Besiktas fans and the most likely second-string side Stoke field may turn it into a comfortable win for the hosts.

It’s unlikely anyone vital to the Stoke campaign will line up for this game, and after towel-gate the likes of Ryan Shotton may be glad of a rest, maybe even back in the UK. As for Besiktas, expect them to give it their all in an attempt to get the job done early and well. SkyBet offer 5/1 on Besiktas to win by two, although you can never rule Stoke out.

 

Fulham v Odense BK, GpK, 20:05

You may well see a smattering of first-team players out tonight as Fulham need to win to make absolutely sure they qualify for the next stage, and unlike some of their London rivals we can assume the Cottagers do want to play in the Europa League. In fact, a game like this could well remind people that this is not just something Alex Ferguson or Harry Redknapp derides, but a proper tournament, and any side saying the prize money is too low to make it worth winning is surely revealing the fact they are in the game for the wrong reasons.

The good win enjoyed by Fulham over Liverpool was followed up by a fairly rubbish performance against Swansea, and with talk of dissatisfaction in the camp surfacing I’m sure the manager would like to see a good win, and not just to take the heat off him. 11/1 is the generous offer on a 3-1 home win from WilliamHill, and I hope (and expect) that Fulham can deliver for their fans.

 

Stoke v Dynamo Kiev, GpE, 20:05

Tony Pulis has a chance to wrap up qualification in front of the home fans tonight, and with the opposition a genuine giant of the European game, and this being the first season the Potters have spent in the Europa League in modern guise that would be a massively impressive achievement. Their group contains a few Champions League regulars, but in truth the English side have made it all look quite simple, although the league form has taken a bit of a hit.

Pulis will most likely rest a few of the first team, as Kiev are third and the home side technically only need a point to go through. Andy Wilkinson is a major fitness doubt despite coming through the weekend win over Blackburn, but striker Cameron Jerome is available again after serving his one-game European ban and Asmir Begovic will find himself rotated back into the team after Sorensen played against Rovers. WilliamHill have 11/1 on a triumphant 2-0 win for the Potters, which would warm the fans on their journey home, or at least those not going back to the Ukraine.

 

FC Twente v Fulham, GpK, 18:00

While a win in this game would see Fulham through to the knockout stages, conventional wisdom suggests going away to the league leaders and expecting to pick up three points is a bit too crazy, even for Martin ‘Goldmember’ Jol. However, the home side have already made it through to the next round and as a result will most likely rest their entire first team, as this game is effectively meaningless to them. This will suit the travelling Cottagers just fine in their quest, and Jol may even decide to let a few of the first team play, given they have until Monday to recover for their next match.

Zdenek Grygera will miss this after being ruled out for six months with an anterior cruciate ligament tear, and the likes of Danny Murphy and Clint Dempsey are certain to get a rest, but Andy Johnson has looked impressive so far this year, and may join a few of the younger members of the Fulham squad in lining up this evening. You can get 9’s with PaddyPower on AJ netting the first goal of the game, which would help Fulham along nicely.