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Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Midweek Football Picks 2014 (February 25-27)

Last week saw all four away teams in the Champions League win the first leg of their Last 16 ties and you would arguably say that all four of those ties are effectively over as contests.

It would now take something special for Manchester City and Arsenal to turn around 0-2 deficits at the homes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively, while Bayer Leverkusen have an even bigger task from their 0-4 home loss against Paris Saint-Germain.

In past years, Milan's 0-1 home loss would not have meant curtains for them, but this is far from a vintage crop of players and the club are unlikely to beat Atletico Madrid in Spain with the latter one of the dark horses to win the whole competition.

So what are the chances of the remaining four Last 16 ties going the same way? All of the away teams are favourites to win again this week, but I think it will be a big ask for all of them to win, especially the three games not involving Real Madrid.

The Europa League will also set their Last 16 ties this week and most of the second legs are up for grabs following close matches last week. It is a competition that is much harder to get a read on simply because you can't always predict the changes made by managers and the Europa League is clearly not high on everyone's priority list.

That will change as the teams are filtered away through the Rounds, but that was the main reason I steered clear last week.

February has just been plain horrible for the picks I have made and have ruined what was a decent season to this point. Things are not going to plan when you account for late goals, players being guilty of missing absolute sitters (the worst example was Edin Dzeko's miss at the weekend), or teams playing comically when least expected.

It happens, but it doesn't make it less frustrating when all these things seem to be occurring within the same time period and really putting a few doubts in the head.

The month is already gone in terms of a win-loss record, but hopefully the last few days can see a change in fortunes.

In saying that, I wouldn't mind being wrong about the pick for the Olympiacos-Manchester United game...

Zenit St Petersburg v Borussia Dortmund Pick: It is never an easy task travelling to Eastern Europe, but this may be the best time for Borussia Dortmund to take on Zenit St Petersburg as the home side could be slightly undercooked having been on a winter break.

At the end of the day, you can't replicate competitive football and that may be a tough obstacle for Zenit St Petersburg to overcome in this Last 16 tie. However, they may take some solace in the fact that Shakhtar Donetsk were minutes away from beating Borussia Dortmund at the same stage last season in similar circumstances.

The other issue for Zenit to overcome in this game is their poor form in the Champions League this season and the fact that they failed to win any of their 3 home games in the Group. Going to Germany next month without the luxury of a lead could be too much for them to defeat Dortmund without having something to hold on to in the second leg.

As much as Zenit have failed to win games, they have also been tough to beat at home and I still don't think Borussia Dortmund are as convincing a side on their travels as they are in front of their loud home support. The quality is certainly in the German sides ranks to win this game and put a big foot into the Quarter Finals, but they won't want to be too rash and a professional performance may see them return home with a draw and the ability to finish the match in the second leg.

Dortmund needed late goals to beat Arsenal and Marseille away from home in the Group, but it is far from a stretch to suggest they won't be pushing on with ten minutes left if they have got an away goal, even if the game is drawn at that stage. The away sides have dominated the Last 16 ties last week, but I have a feeling that this one might end up being a draw which will be a result that satisfies Borussia Dortmund from a tough away adventure.

Olympiacos v Manchester United Pick: It hasn't been a good Last 16 Round for the English teams so far, but Manchester United will be the clear favourites to come through this tie, although I don't think it will be the straight-forward tie that many may have originally expected.

When you look at the forms of the two sides, it is hard to make a case for Manchester United at short odds away from home and I think that is my first impression of the odds.

Yes, Manchester United looked better on Saturday, but there is a vulnerability to the side that could easily return in front of a loud, passionate home crowd that have seen their side win a lot of football games over the last four months.

Some will point to the Paris Saint-Germain win here in the Group Stage, but I believe PSG are a better side than Manchester United, although the experience in the away camp is hard to ignore too. However, I think Manchester United are going to be given a really big test here and Olympiacos will know they have to win this leg if they have real ambitions for making it through to the Quarter Finals.

The last time Olympiacos reached this stage four years ago, they were beaten 0-1 here by Bordeaux but they are on a run of 16 straight home games which have either seen the side win or lose and that includes victories over the likes of Arsenal, Benfica and Borussia Dortmund. It looks like it is going to be hard to stop the home side scoring too as they have hit the net in their last 8 games at home in the Champions League and I do believe Manchester United are in for a huge test of their defensive concentration.

I do have a feeling that United will get themselves a crucial away goal and, as a fan, I would love to be proved wrong here... But if the Olympiacos home trend continues from the Champions League, I think the home side at 4.00 is a much better value price than Manchester United at 2.25 and I do think that the Greek side may secure a lead to take to Old Trafford in three weeks time.

Galatasaray v Chelsea Pick: A tough week in European competition for the English sides showed no sign of improvement on Tuesday night with Manchester United's loss in Greece, but I believe Chelsea will buck the trend by at least avoiding defeat in this game.

As well as Galatasaray have done to reach the Last 16 for the second year in a row, they were perhaps a little fortunate to score as late as they did in their win over Juventus on match day 6 that was played in terrible conditions. It didn't look like they were going to score the winning goal to take them through to the Last 16 that day and I think Galatasaray will find it tough to break down a well organised Chelsea team.

On the other hand, I don't think Jose Mourinho will be setting his side up to do much more than use the counter attack to earn an away goal that may make the second leg that much more comfortable for them to deal with. Chelsea did play well away from home in the Group, but they were beaten in Basle and I don't think this is going to be an easy game for them as they look to snap a long unbeaten run that Galatasaray have been enjoying at home.

There are still times that Chelsea look a little toothless going forward as Jose Mourinho pointed out in the video that was filmed and released this week- the forwards are the weakest position in the Chelsea team and it is clearly a position they will look to improve this summer and may be the biggest reason this team don't win the Champions League this season.

Chelsea have been effective on the counter-attack which is where they will make hay in this one if they are to win the game. Personally I believe Mourinho will have his side settle for the draw and finishing the tie in front of the home fans at Stamford Bridge and I predict this one to end in a low-scoring game that leaves the tie in the balance.

Schalke v Real Madrid Pick: There must be something strange in the water in Germany that doesn't sit well with Real Madrid as they have only won 1 of 25 previous games held in this country and will be looking to double that tally on Wednesday night.

To be fair to Real Madrid, Schalke present an 'easier' challenge than their last three visits to Germany as they were beaten by Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund (twice), but the likes of Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen have also beaten them in their current 6 game losing run in Germany.

Schalke have also been playing well so I think they will present problems for Real Madrid and I wouldn't be surprised if the home side get on the scoreboard despite the improvements in Real Madrid's defensive performances recently. However, I also think the Chelsea losses show that Schalke are perhaps not quite good enough against the really good teams in Europe, while Schalke have also been beaten here by Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund this season.

All of those sides have scored at least 3 goals against Schalke and a Real Madrid team that has the attacking potential that comes with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Angel Di Maria and Gareth Bale can match that tally. Galatasaray also managed to score 3 here last season at the same stage of the competition, although it has to be noted that came in the second leg when Schalke were caught late on as they chased goals.

This could be an entertaining first leg as Schalke know they have to get something to defend in Madrid next month, but I think Real Madrid are playing too well at the moment to slip up here.

Real Madrid should win a high-scoring game and I expect the away side will score at least three goals here.

Rubin Kazan v Real Betis Pick: The draw in Spain in the first leg has given Rubin Kazan a big edge in this tie and I think they will move through to the Last 16 of the Europa League with a win under their belt. Real Betis have nothing to lose, but their priority is the Spanish League now as they look to avoid relegation and Rubin Kazan have proven to be a tough team to beat here over the last twelve months.

It took a late goal from Maribor to prevent Rubin Kazan winning their seventh home game in a row and it is the only goal they have conceded at home in 6 games in the Europa League.

The pressure is on Real Betis to come to Russia and score the goal that will cancel the one they have conceded at home, but they have failed to score in 4 of their last 5 away games and it is tough to see them changing that here.

With the home record that Rubin Kazan have built up in the competition since the beginning of the 2012 season, I think they will expose any gaps Betis leave in search of goals. I believe the home side will move through with a win, but their first port of call is making sure they are defensively sound so will back that win to come with a clean sheet.

Napoli v Swansea Pick: There is no doubt that Napoli had to ride their luck at the Liberty Stadium last week, but I think they will likely be a lot more positive in this game and I expect them to come through with something to spare.

Swansea looked good going forward in their loss at Anfield on Sunday, but Liverpool could be accused of some poor defending and I don't think Rafa Benitez will let his Napoli side lose sight of that aspect of their game.

The first goal is going to be critical in this game after the goalless draw in Wales, but Napoli should prove to be too strong with their 10 game home unbeaten run to protect. Napoli were comfortable winners over Arsenal at home in the Champions League and they do score a fair few goals in front of their own fans.

I also feel there will be gaps to exploit if Napoli are leading in this game as Swansea will be forced forward, but a goal for the English side will allow them to sit in and look to counter themselves.

Napoli should have enough to score the goals to take them through to the Last 16 in this tie and I think they are worth backing to win by two or more goals.

Tottenham Hotspur v Dnipro Pick: After the complaints made about the state of the pitch last week, Tim Sherwood can only save face if his Tottenham Hotspur side can come out with a positive result from this second leg and move through to the Last 16.

A defeat at Carrow Road on Sunday means Spurs have lost back to back games and they need to build momentum ahead of a very strong month of March where they face some of the top teams in the Premier League. Getting into the Champions League is the priority for the entire club, but they need the momentum that can come with a good Cup run in the Europa League too.

They should have got more out of the game at Dnipro last week and failing to score gives the Ukrainian team an edge in the tie because any goal scored means Spurs will have to score three times to progress. However, Spurs created enough chances last week to think they will do the same at home and I do think they will have enough to see off the challenge from Dnipro.

I did think about backing Tottenham Hotspur to cover the one goal Asian Handicap, but instead I am going to back them to qualify and reach the Last 16 at odds against.

MY PICKS: Zenit St Petersburg-Borussia Dortmund Draw @ 3.80 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
Olympiacos @ 4.00 Bet Fred (1 Unit)
Galatasaray-Chelsea Draw @ 3.40 Sky Bet (1 Unit)
Real Madrid to Win and 3 or 4 Total Goals in the Match @ 3.20 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
Rubin Kazan Win to Nil @ 2.75 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
Napoli - 1 Asian Handicap @ 1.80 Pinnacle (1 Unit)
Tottenham Hotspur to Qualify @ 2.00 Paddy Power (1 Unit)

February Update8-25, - 20.97 Units (54 Units Staked, - 38.83% Yield)

January Final17-24, - 3.18 Units (62 Units Staked, - 5.13% Yield)
December Final19-16-2, + 13.34 Units (66 Units Staked, + 20.21% Yield)
November Final17-19-1, + 0.50 Units (56 Units Staked, + 0.09% Yield)
October Final20-16-1, + 12.94 Units (51 Units Staked, + 25.37% Yield)
September Final13-12, + 1.24 Units (39 Units Staked, + 3.18% Yield)
August Final13-26, - 12.13 Units (54 Units Staked, - 22.46% Yield)

Season 2013/1499-103-3, + 12.71 Units (328 Units Staked, + 3.88% Yield)
Season 2012/13+ 4.42 Units (415 Units Staked, + 1.07% Yield)

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