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Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Midweek Football Picks 2015 (February 17-19)

The Champions League and Europa League takes centre stage this week as both competitions return after the two month break between the Group Stage and the Knock Out Stages. I am still not convinced with the idea the Champions League has in pushing their Last 16 ties over four matchdays and spread over the course of a month, but it does mean the neutral gets to see more of the high-quality matches that they would want.

Well I say that, but the Last 16 draw in the Champions League is largely underwhelming and half of the ties have a clear favourite. Even the Juventus-Borussia Dortmund game has lost some of the appeal with the latter struggling for form, while the two English clubs in Chelsea and Manchester City have the two best ties of the Round as they face Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona respectively.

What this Round does mean is that we should get an exceptional Quarter Final line up now that there is no country protection for the draw.

Talking about country protection, I can't be the only one that thinks it is silly to have that in ANY Round during the Knock Out Stage- I understand UEFA want a European experience and wouldn't want the four English/Spanish/German sides to play one another in the Last 16, but I think if you finish 2nd in the Group, you shouldn't be given the chance to avoid one of the top Seeds.

It hasn't had an effect this season, but a team like Arsenal have had to suffer through really difficult Last 16 ties because other '2nd Seeded' teams couldn't play the likes of Bayern Munich or Barcelona or Real Madrid because they come from the same nation. That just doesn't seem fair to me and I think the country protection should only be reserved for the Group Stage and even then I am not completely convinced.

If you're considered 'bad enough' to be a Fourth Seed in the Groups, I don't see why teams from your own nation should be 'punished' by not having the opportunity to play against that team and earn the 'easy' draw that their Seeding should technically give them.

The Europa League also feels more 'important' this season now that the winner is rewarded with a place in the Champions League and you have to think the likes of Inter Milan, Fiorentina, Villarreal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur all will be looking at this as a genuine route onto the top table in European Football. The likes of Liverpool and Spurs are in a very competitive battle for top four spots in England, while the other three teams I mentioned are perhaps just off the pace and can concentrate on this competition a bit more.

I guess we will know more later this week after Tottenham Hotspur host Fiorentina in what looks to be the tie of the Round and there are other dangerous teams in this tournament that I haven't mentioned just yet.

It will be interesting to see what kind of approach managers have to the Last 32 of the Europa League, which still looks a way out to Warsaw, but the importance of the competition certainly feels it has grown.

Paris Saint-Germain v Chelsea Pick: The Last 16 of the Champions League has put together a couple of really big ties which will take place over the next month, but the one between Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain is arguably the best of the bunch, especially if it comes close to the drama of the Quarter Final last season.

Paris Saint-Germain have to be kicking themselves for the way they lost that tie thanks to a late Demba Ba goal as they had a number of chances to score the away goal they conceded at home. Keeping clean sheets has been something of a problem for PSG in the Champions League and they have only kept 1 in their last 7 home games in this competition, although that hasn't stopped them beating the likes of Chelsea and Barcelona in front of their own fans.

However, PSG still had to settle for finishing behind the Catalan giants which has given them this tie and it has been made all the more difficult with a sudden long injury list being produced. You would also think that Jose Mourinho would have learned from the 3-1 defeat here last season and that does make Chelsea a more dangerous proposition as they return to Paris.

Last season, Chelsea went with a false nine system, but the return of Diego Costa gives them a real focal point in this one. They also sat back a little too much in the second half and were not as effective on the counter-attack as they would have liked so Mourinho will make the tactical changes to make Chelsea that much more of a threat throughout the game this time.

One thing that Mourinho can be guilty of is playing a little cautiously at times in these two legged ties and that might be where Paris Saint-Germain have their success. They would have been buoyed by seeing some of the Chelsea away performances in the 2015 season, especially at Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, and will feel they are better than those two Europa League teams.

I can make a case for both teams to have their successes in this one, but the Paris Saint-Germain home record, both at home and in the Champions League, is very hard to dismiss. It just makes me believe that they can overcome the injuries they are facing and they do look a big price considering wins over Barcelona and Chelsea in the last twelve months at the Parc de Princes.

It might be a more cautious game than the one they played here last season, but I still think PSG edge taking a lead to London, although not one that settles the tie. A small interest at the prices look justified to me.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Bayern Munich Pick: When you consider this is supposed to be the best 16 teams in European football, Bayern Munich look very short to win at Shakhtar Donetsk, although I would be surprised if there is a different result in this First Leg. Shakhtar Donetsk are a very tough team to beat in the Ukraine, but Bayern Munich are a different level to what they would have faced in the Group Stage and the side only went 1-1-1 at home in those three games.

That included a 0-1 defeat in their final home game against Athletic Bilbao which essentially cost Shakhtar Donetsk the chance to overturn Porto for top spot in the Group. No competitive football for a couple of months is also going to have an affect on Shakhtar Donetsk, while Bayern Munich should dominate the possession of the ball.

Shakhtar Donetsk do have a lot of pace in the forward positions which could cause Bayern Munich some real problems, but they will need possession to make that pace count and it could be a tough day in the office for them.

While Shakhtar Donetsk don't lose too often at home in the Champions League, their last 5 losses have all come when they have failed to score and Bayern Munich could come away with a clean sheet from this one. The question then becomes whether the Bundesliga leaders have enough in them to create chances and score a goal or two that will set them up for a comfortable second leg.

I am not completely convinced that Bayern Munich will over-run Shakhtar Donetsk in a tough away game so the Asian Handicap markets look hard to judge- while I don't know if Bayern Munich can win this one going away, I do think they are capable of doing that when on form so even backing the home team with a head-start might not be worth doing.

Instead, I think backing the Bayern Munich side to dominate possession, restrict Shakhtar Donetsk chances and return to Bavaria with a win coupled with a clean sheet is worth a small interest.

Basel v Porto Pick: The First Leg of these knock out ties in the European Champions League would be expected to be tight affairs, or so the theory goes, but it is something of a surprise that only 8/32 of the Last 16 First Leg ties have ended in a draw over the last four years.

It might be down to the fact that a lot of the bigger teams in European football are head and shoulders above the next level and they generally win these ties, but neither Porto nor Basel will be thinking they are the clear favourite in this one. That could produce a tighter contest where both teams will want to be in the tie when they meet in the Second Leg next month and I am finding it hard to separate them.

Basel have played very well at home in European competition over the last few years and that includes beating the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Bayern Munich in Champions League ties. Paulo Sousa knows all there is to know about Portuguese football so that insider knowledge may give his Basel team another edge in this First Leg in front of their own fans.

However, Porto have played very well in the Champions League this season and they have goals in the side which makes them a threat, although getting beyond the Quarter Final would be a huge surprise. They will be put under pressure by Basel, but Porto have won in places like Athletic Bilbao and Lille since the start of the season and will have full belief that they can win this tie if they go back to Portugal with either a win or a draw.

Both teams may actually accept the draw if it is was offered to them now, although the onus is on Basel to attack. They have done well in the Europa League in knock-out football, so those experiences will tell them that they can win this tie even if they have to go to Porto neither ahead or behind.

This looks an incredibly close game to call and I think backing the draw could pay off.

Schalke v Real Madrid Pick: This is another Champions League Last 16 tie with a very short away favourite in the First Leg, but I think Real Madrid have the firepower to give Schalke a really difficult time in this one. Last season saw Schalke crushed at home by Real Madrid at the exact same stage and their heavy home losses to Chelsea (0-3 last season and 0-5 in the Group this season) associated with the Real Madrid win here suggests Schalke have a team who can be put to the sword by the best teams.

Schalke have drawn twice with Bayern Munich this season, but it is a different feeling when a team from outside your nation comes to visit and the inspiration needed for the results they achieved against Bayern isn't so prevalent. The fans will want to rattle 'Hollywood FC' but they can sometimes sit back and admire what the likes of Chelsea and Real Madrid can produce which doesn't help the players on the field.

The other factor is that Schalke's style of play meshes perfectly with what Real Madrid want to do and the German side will try and attack which might expose them defensively. There is a lot of pace in the Real Madrid team and the counter-attack proved devastating last season and could be a big problem for Schalke to deal with in this game too.

Real Madrid haven't been as good on their travels since coming out of the 'Winter Break' and 2 of their 3 away wins in the Group Stage of the Champions League came by a solitary goal. However, Real Madrid crushed Liverpool, who were more open because they had belief in their own attack and I expect Schalke could have a similar issue.

At odds against, I think there is a real reason to back Real Madrid to come to Schalke and leave with a very strong lead and effectively a foot in the Quarter Finals. The last three top teams to visit this Stadium have won comfortably and Schalke have lost their last 2 home games in the Last 16 in each of the last two seasons.

Backing Real Madrid to cover the Asian Handicap looks the call.

AaB v Club Brugge Pick: Club Brugge have got a very big game against Gent this Sunday so their focus might be taken away from this First Leg of their Europa League tie in Denmark, but I think that has been reflected in their odds against quote and the side look to be worth backing. Club Brugge have already won at Copenhagen and Brondby in the Europa League this season and both of those sides are better than AaB in the Danish top flight so the hat-trick of wins in this nation can be completed.

AaB have also been on their Winter Break and won't return to competitive action until this game kicks off before they have a big game against Brondby over the weekend. One concern I would have in backing Club Brugge is how well AaB have played at home this season, which includes a win over Copenhagen, and the fact that this team won all 3 home Group games in this competition.

That will make them dangerous and confident of keeping this tie alive for the Second Leg in Belgium next week, but I think the quality is on the side of Club Brugge and they might be worth a small interest to get a vital away win on Thursday.

Torino v Athletic Bilbao Pick: The layers initially opened Torino up at very big odds to win the First Leg of this Last 32 Europa League tie, but they have either seen sense or taken some big money on the home team winning this match. Whatever has happened, Torino's odds have shortened for this game, but I still believe the Italian side are going to get the better of Athletic Bilbao and at least go to the Basque country with a lead next week.

Torino have been playing well at home but struggled to produce the wins in recent games, although they will look to history to help them get over the hump in this one. The club have won all 4 home games against Spanish opposition in the past, while Torino have won 7 of their last 9 home European games and not conceded in any of the last 8.

I expect Athletic Bilbao pose problems against all those records, especially as they have shown improvement in recent weeks with their sole loss coming against Barcelona which is understandable to say the least. They haven't lost too many away games over the last few months and this tie could be fairly tight as both teams won't want to give too much away too early.

However, I think Torino will know they need to have something of a lead to take to Bilbao next week and will be pushing a little more. Most Spanish teams don't take a backward step anyway so I expect the home side will have spaces to exploit and they could be worth a small interest to come out of the First Leg with a narrow lead.

Wolfsburg v Sporting Lisbon Pick: The Europa League has some intriguing ties in the Last 32 and this is another of those as Wolfsburg get set to host Sporting Lisbon in what could be a vital First Leg for both of these teams. Wolfsburg have been flying at home all season and have scored a lot of goals in recent weeks which will make them believe they can make the trip to Lisbon a foregone conclusion, although Sporting will look back on their two games with Schalke and believe they can cause problems for another Bundesliga side.

Both teams look to get forward and score goals and this should make this an entertaining encounter where they look for the rewards of winning a game rather than play out a tense game and try to settle things next week.

Wolfsburg have scored 7 goals in their last 2 home games, but they should also be tested at the back by a Sporting Lisbon team that has scored in all 3 away games in the Champions League Group Stage, including 3 times in Schalke despite playing with ten men for a large amount of that game. In fact, Sporting Lisbon have only failed to score in 2 of their last 11 away games in European Football and I do think they will come here with the pace in forward positions to create chances and score goals.

However, I do also believe Wolfsburg are going to take a narrow lead to Portugal next week with the form they have been displaying. The team never know when it is too late to win a game as they showed at the weekend in a 4-5 win at Bayer Leverkusen and they are playing with the confidence that should see them create their chances to win the game.

Backing the home team to win a game in which both teams score looks a decent price to me.

Celtic v Inter Milan Pick: This match will bring back memories of the 1967 European Cup Final which was won by the 'Lions of Lisbon' representing Glasgow Celtic, but beating Inter Milan and moving into the Last 16 of the Europa League looks a big ask of them almost 50 years later.

As well as Celtic have begun to play domestically, they have been found short a lot of the times in European Football this season and now they face one of the favourites for the Europa League. However, this isn't a vintage Inter Milan team and they are a long way from the one that won the Champions League in 2010 and have struggled in Serie A.

Celtic did win 2 of their 3 home Group games in the Europa League, but defeats to Legia Warsaw, Maribor and Salzburg in their Champions League and Europa League games at home have to be a real concern for them. Whether Inter Milan can become the latest side to leave Glasgow with a victory is another matter as they have struggled to impose themselves in away games in European Football and had to settle for two draws and a win in the Group.

Even the win came courtesy of a red card for Dnipro and Inter Milan scored fairly late on to take the victory. I think Roberto Mancini will be aware of the importance of not leaving Celtic Park with a defeat and will believe his side can beat the Scottish Champions at the San Siro next week. I can imagine that makes Inter Milan a little more cautious and they may have to settle for a draw in this First Leg.

Liverpool v Besiktas Pick: This is a tough position for Brendan Rodgers to decide what he wants to do as Liverpool have some huge matches coming up in the Premier League against teams challenging for the Champions League spots as well as the FA Cup Quarter Final against Blackburn Rovers. You would think the manager won't want to lose the momentum that Liverpool have clearly picked up in recent weeks so he won't want to see his side slip out of the Europa League meekly.

So how do I feel this one will play out? I think Brendan Rodgers will look to use Anfield to the full effect in this one and will play a strong Liverpool team in the hope of putting the tie to bed in the First Leg. That will be almost impossible against a Besiktas team that has played well at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur already this season, but Rodgers would probably take a two goal lead to Istanbul and then hope a re-jigged line up can complete the job.

Daniel Sturridge is back scoring goals and I would be surprised if the England international doesn't at least start this game, although he is likely to be taken off for the game against Southampton on Sunday. His presence does seem to give the rest of the team a little extra spring in their step and Liverpool have been playing very well and creating a lot of chances in recent weeks which Sturridge will thrive upon.

Defensively they are still a bit of a concern, but they might be facing a Besiktas team that looks to defend deep and make sure they are still in the tie next week when these teams go to Istanbul for the Second Leg.

I do think this Liverpool team are playing well enough at the moment to win this game with a little more comfort than Arsenal did when they beat Besiktas 1-0 earlier this season. Even Tottenham Hotspur would have won by that scoreline if not for a late penalty for the Turkish side and Besiktas may not be so fortunate again.

They don't lose often, but I think Besiktas will do well to escape with a narrow defeat in this one and I will back Liverpool to cover the Asian Handicap.

Sevilla v Borussia Monchengladbach Pick: This looks to be another fascinating tie between two teams that could potentially be involved in the Champions League next season if they can maintain their League form. Sevilla look the better team of the two, but Borussia Monchengladbach showed their own capabilities by earning a 2-2 draw at Villarreal in the Group Stage of the Europa League.

Being the defending Champions has to offer Sevilla more inspiration, although there might be a nagging doubt at the back of both team's minds that they will be better off concentrating on League matters than this long Europa League. Sevilla have been very good at home though and that should be enough for them to earn the edge and take a lead to Germany next week, although Borussia Monchengladbach could have a vital away goal in their pocket too.

I did consider backing this game to feature at least three goals as both teams are decent going forward, but Borussia Monchengladbach haven't been scoring a lot of goals of late and that raises doubts.

Instead, I will take the slightly shorter price on a home win with Sevilla being so effective in front of their own fans and looking to score the goals that makes the trip to Germany slightly 'easier' next week. Could be a fun game to watch, but Sevilla to win the First Leg looks the call.

Tottenham Hotspur v Fiorentina Pick: This looks like one of those ties that could give the winner the confidence to go all the way in the Europa League this season and you have to imagine both managers are thinking something very similar. Both Tottenham Hotspur and Fiorentina won't have too many clubs to fear in the Europa League and that makes this tie a fascinating one that could be decided by the smallest of margins.

For Tottenham Hotspur, you have to think the First Leg is going to be all-important after the 1-3 loss to Benfica at White Hart Lane effectively ended their chances of going through to the Quarter Finals last season. They have found a real groove at home in recent weeks and been winning plenty of plaudits and games in front of their own fans and I think they will have a strong team out to ensure they take an advantage to Florence next week.

That won't be easy though against a Fiorentina team that is unbeaten in their last 12 away games in the Europa League and have won 7 of their last 9 away from home in all competitions. Those runs include a draw at Juventus in the Last 16 last season and beating Roma in the Coppa Italia a couple of weeks ago so Fiorentina will be very confident in their own chances.

The question for Vincenzo Montella will be whether he tempers his players instinct to get forward to make sure they don't allow too much space for Harry Kane and this Tottenham Hotspur team who can score plenty of goals at home. On the other hand, Montella won't want Fiorentina to sit too deep and invite pressure onto them and that puts them in a difficult position in this one.

Tottenham Hotspur's mindset will be much clearer knowing they want to win this home tie to give themselves the best possible chance of moving into the Last 16. They have had a week to prepare for the game and that clarity might lead to a narrow win to take to Italy next Thursday.

MY PICKS: Paris Saint-Germain @ 2.80 Ladbrokes (1 Unit)
Bayern Munich Win to Nil @ 2.25 Sky Bet (1 Unit)
Basel-Porto Draw @ 3.30 Sky Bet (1 Unit)
Real Madrid - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 2.20 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Club Brugge @ 2.20 Bet Fred (1 Unit)
Torino @ 2.40 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
Both Teams to Score and Wolfsburg to Win @ 3.20 William Hill (1 Unit)
Celtic-Inter Milan Draw @ 3.40 Bet365 (1 Unit)
Liverpool - 1 Asian Handicap @ 1.98 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Sevilla @ 1.92 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Tottenham Hotspur @ 2.25 William Hill (2 Units)

February Update7-13, - 6.73 Units (35 Units Staked, - 19.23% Yield)

January Final10-22-1, - 10.54 Units (57 Units Staked, - 18.49% Yield)
December Final25-19-1, + 18.70 Units (81 Units Staked, + 23.09% Yield)
November Final17-21, - 0.59 Units (69 Units Staked, - 1% Yield)
October Final8-18, - 14.79 Units (47 Units Staked, - 31.47% Yield)
September Final12-18, - 2.28 Units (41 Units Staked, - 5.56% Yield)
August Final8-22, - 19.92 Units (51 Units Staked, - 39.06% Yield)

Season 2014/1580-120-2, - 29.42 Units (346 Units Staked, - 8.50% 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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