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Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Midweek Football Picks 2014 (August 19-21)

That was a troubled opening weekend of the new football season for the picks and one that escalated quickly with the poor results. If it wasn't for an injury-time goal from Sergio Aguero, it really would have been a torrid start for the picks.

Some of the blame has to be taken by me, but there were some real surprising results, none more so than the terrible display put forth by Manchester United after all the promise of pre-season. There were a number of injuries to contend with, but that would be a big excuse for Louis Van Gaal and not one he is likely to employ as United started with players that had been performing in pre-season games.

Stoke City's home loss to Aston Villa was another disappointing result, the second season in a row that Villa have started with an upset on their travels in the Premier League. And then both Arsenal and Liverpool scored late winners, but edged over the line in games against Crystal Palace and Southampton respectively.

A portion of the poor performances could be played on the tiredness that some players may have felt from the World Cup and I do think there was a real argument to put the League campaign back one more weekend as they have done in Spain and Italy. I think that was partially the reason that Arsenal and Liverpool laboured as much as they did, although the first day/month of the season can be a little stop-start for the players as they regain their form and fitness.

In a weekend where Manchester United disappointed so greatly, I was casting some envious glances at Chelsea where Cesc Fabregas returned to the Premier League as if he had never been away. Fabregas is suited so well to the Premier League and was in fantastic form against Burnley as he pulled the strings from the middle of the park, an area where United need improvement.

Why they didn't pursue the Spanish international as they did last summer is beyond me? If I had to put my finger on a reason though, I would hazard a guess that Fabregas told United he isn't interested in coming to the club and thus the statements made to the media are more of a face-saving exercise than a genuine 'we didn't want him'.

The next two weeks are going to be critical for Manchester United as they look to bring in reinforcements that were supposed to be wrapped up weeks before the start of the season. Unfortunately, this window is beginning to look more and more like last summer which should mean fingers are pointed at Ed Woodward and the Glaziers even in light of their grand declarations that we can spend whatever we like.

Anyone with a semblance of knowledge of how the Glaziers have run United over the last ten years will be more than a little dubious about those claims and they have two weeks to prove us all wrong and bring in the faces that will ensure a bid for a top four place. Failure to do that could be catastrophic for a team and a quick look down the M62 will show United fans how difficult it is to return to the elite in the Premier League in the face of financial restraints and a poor squad that needs an injection of new blood to get them moving in the right direction again.

This week is another Champions League/Europa League qualifying week and it is the final one before the Group Stage begins in both of those competitions. There are some big teams in action and some big Play Off matches that will be played over the next eight days as the likes of Arsenal, Napoli, Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur all play this week.

Hopefully this August month will pick up and not follow the trend of twelve months ago when I really struggled early in the season with my picks before turning the season around for a profitable one.

Besiktas v Arsenal Pick: As much as I believe that Arsenal are a big favourite to beat Besiktas over two legs to move back into the Champions League Group Stage, I can't help but feel they are very short to win the first leg in Turkey.

I do think Arsenal are a much better team than Besiktas, even with the latter signing Demba Ba this summer, and I think the pressure is on the Turkish side to get something out of this game. Previous matches in England have ended badly for Besiktas more often than not so anything other than having something to defend next week could be curtains for them already.

Arsenal also have the benefit of the experience of winning in the Play Off Rounds and also beat Fenerbache of Turkey last season in the first leg- that came after a disappointing performance at home in the Premier League so there isn't a lot for the fans to worry about as they head to Turkey.

The Gunners have won all 12 games played at this stage of the Champions League and I do think they are capable of winning this one too. However, they may have to ride out an early Besiktas storm and Arsenal might have to wait until after the break before they take control.

Their last 3 away wins in the Champions League have all come after Arsenal have gone into the break level, while Arsenal also haven't been ahead in 3 of their last 4 away Play Off games in the Champions League, but have won all of those. That means the value may be in backing Arsenal to win a game after it goes in level at the break.

Napoli v Athletic Bilbao Pick: Out of all the ties that are to be played in the Champions League this week, Napoli versus Athletic Bilbao looks to be the most exciting one, although I do think the experience of the Italians may win the day.

Napoli have performed very well in the Champions League in their appearances over the last three seasons and they were very unlucky not to split Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund in the top two places of their Group last season. That follows their campaign in 2011/12 where they did help knock out Manchester City and it is the home games that have provided the winning platform.

The side have won 6 of their 7 home games in the Champions League, including the last 5 in a row and that means they should be plenty confident of beating Athletic Bilbao. In Rafa Benitez, Napoli also have a manager that has had a lot of success in European games, particularly knock out ties and I believe the former Liverpool manager will have the team tactically and mentally ready for this one.

One factor going against Napoli is that they have had a lot more players coming back from the World Cup than Athletic Bilbao and we have seen teams struggle with that aspect in the Premier League. However, Athletic Bilbao's Ernesto Valverde admitted that shows that Napoli have the higher quality and his team need to use their work ethic to win this game.

It'll be tough for Athletic Bilbao who haven't had the best recent away record in European competition to get a result here and I do believe Napoli can have a lead to take to Spain next week. I expect to see some very good football over the next 180 minutes played by these teams, but this is a game that I think Napoli can win and give themselves a platform to move back into the Group Stage.

Lille v Porto Pick: This looks like a tight European Champions League Play Off and the layers clearly are feeling the same about this first leg with both teams at big prices to earn the advantage ahead of the second leg in Portugal.

I am much the same in trying to separate the teams and their chances to win this game and I think the draw is a major player in this first leg where both teams would believe that gives them a real chance to progress.

Lille have been tough to beat at home, but they draw plenty of games as they can sometimes struggle against stubborn teams. Their home record in the Champions League at the highest level is not the best in recent season, but on the other hand Porto have struggled to win games on their travels too.

With just 1 win from their last 9 away games in all competitions and just 1 win from their last 9 away games in Europe, Porto might be quite content to take this tie back home to complete the job. Porto did struggle at home last season in the Group Stage, but prior to that had won 6 of 8 home games in the Champions League and were unbeaten in those games, while the team also won their last 2 home games in the Europa League last season.

Everything seems to be pointing to a tight battle on Wednesday too and I think the draw is the most pleasing result for both managers with all to play for next week in Portugal.

Maribor v Celtic Pick: After the controversy of the last round, Celtic will be looking to take full advantage of their reprieve in the Champions League. However, the defeat to Legia Warsaw at least highlighted to the fans that Celtic are not a guarantee to beat the Slovenian Champions Maribor who will also be familiar of breaking Glaswegian hearts.

Maribor knocked Rangers out of the Europa League three years ago in a Play Off, while they have also beaten Hibernian from Scotland the year before that. This is a side that has generally found the Champions League a happy hunting ground until they have reached this stage, but Maribor won't look at Celtic as a team that has earned their place at this stage through their performances on the field.

That isn't to say that they will take Celtic lightly, but Maribor do look a big price to win the first leg- it was only twelve months ago that Shakhter Karagandy surprised Celtic with a 2-0 home win in Kazakhstan and Maribor have been very strong at home in recent Champions League home ties.

The concern is that Maribor have lost their last 2 home games in the Champions League Play Offs, but I don't believe Celtic are better than Dinamo Zagreb and Viktoria Plzen, especially with the players that have departed this summer.

I actually think Celtic would accept a draw and try to complete the win at Celtic Park next week, but that may give Maribor enough of an incentive to push on and earn a first leg advantage. The price just looks out of sync from what we have seen from Celtic so far this season and Maribor have won their last 2 home games when Scottish teams have visited them.

Add in the strong home form in the European competitions, over the last three seasons and Maribor may just become the latest European team that surprises the Scottish Champions.

MY PICKS: Draw HT-Arsenal FT @ 5.00 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
Napoli @ 1.92 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Lille-Porto Draw @ 3.30 Bet Fred (1 Unit)
Maribor @ 3.00 Bet Fred (1 Unit)

August Update: 1-6, - 8.8 Units (13 Units Staked, - 67.69% Yield)

Season 2013/14164-185-3, + 15.84 Units (577 Units Staked, + 2.75% Yield)
Season 2012/13+ 4.42 Units (415 Units Staked, + 1.07% Yield)

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