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Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Midweek Football Picks 2015 (August 18-20)

The Champions League Group Stage is the lucrative part of the competition that twenty teams will be looking to get into the draw that takes place a week on Friday. For all the battling so many do to get into the League positions to enter the Champions League, it would all be for nought if they are beaten in the Play Off Round of the competition as a defeat sends them through the trapdoor into the Europa League.

That is no disrespect to the Europa League which is a stronger competition worthy of its position on the calendar than many in England believe it to be, but to say it would be a disappointment to the twenty teams fighting out for the final ten places in the Champions League would not be an understatement.

It can lead to some tense matches over the next nine days as teams try to get into the financial melting pot that is the Champions League Group Stage and I do see some tight ties taking place.

The second round of Premier League fixtures were played last weekend and I have put down a few thoughts from the stories coming out of those games which can be read here.

Manchester United v Club Brugge PickGetting into the top four was the main objective for Manchester United last season, but failing to play in the Group Stage of the Champions League this season would be a real failure for Louis Van Gaal and the club. The opening two Premier League games have resulted in wins for Manchester United, but the performances haven't been the best although the side will be a big favourite to beat Club Brugge in this Champions League Play Off tie.

The First Leg at Old Trafford could be crucial for Manchester United if they are going to progress as many of the fans will be hoping they will be seeing the tie essentially clinched after the game on Tuesday. However, everyone would be wrong to underestimate a Club Brugge team that had been unbeaten in 8 away games in European football before narrow losses to Dnipro and Panathinaikos.

Reaching the Quarter Final of the Europa League last season will give Club Brugge the confidence they can handle a knock out tie early in the season, although they have to improve their away form markedly. Club Brugge have lost 7 of their last 10 away games in all competitions and not many of the teams they will have faced are of the level of a Premier League giant like Manchester United.

That might mean the first objective for Club Brugge is making sure they are still in the tie when they return home for the Second Leg in eight days time. They will look to employ the counter-attack to get the better of Manchester United and try to secure an important away goal, but you have to believe Louis Van Gaal's team is going to be a little too strong on the day.

Manchester United have plenty of room for improvement from their opening two games, but they will also feel the level they are facing is not the same as what Tottenham Hotspur brought to Old Trafford ten days ago. The key for United might be trying to finish the tie when they have the momentum behind them as they have looked good in periods during the first two games without peppering the goal as much as they would like.

There looks to be an obvious decision to make sure Manchester United are defensively sound and I think that will show up in the First Leg of this tie too. I'd suggest that Louis Van Gaal would happily take a 1-0 lead to Belgium next week, but I do think Manchester United will likely have a slightly bigger lead to head into the Second Leg.

However, backing Manchester United to win their third game in a row with a clean sheet might be the best way forward in this one despite the gut feeling they win by at least two goals for the first time this season.

Sporting Lisbon v CSKA Moscow PickThis is another one of the Play Off ties that looks like it could be finely balanced through the two Legs and Sporting Lisbon will be looking for a lead to take to Russia if they have serious ambitions of getting back into the Champions League Group Stage.

Neither Sporting Lisbon nor CSKA Moscow have had much experience in the Champions League Qualifiers and so that is going to bring a tension of its own heading into the First Leg. Both clubs will know how much it means to them financially to be competing with the best teams in Europe rather than dropping into the Europa League.

Both teams have made positive starts to their domestic campaigns, but Sporting Lisbon might take some inspiration and confidence from the way Sparta Prague played against CSKA Moscow in the Third Qualifying Round. Sparta Prague have to feel they missed a trick having led 2-0 in the Second Leg following a 2-2 draw in Moscow, but they were pegged back and that will highlight the character that CSKA Moscow have.

Sporting Lisbon fans will also be looking for some revenge for their 2005 UEFA Cup Final defeat to CSKA Moscow in this stadium, but their club hasn't played well when hosting Russian teams. In fact all three home games against Russian opposition have ended in defeat for Sporting Lisbon and they conceded three times in each. 

If that happens again, you'd have to feel this tie is over, but the experience that manager Jorge Jesus, who comes over from Benfica, might be key for Sporting Lisbon to ensure it doesn't.

I can see both teams being really confident in this First Leg, but I can't overlook the goals CSKA Moscow conceded in the Third Qualifying Round to Sparta Prague. Sporting Lisbon are unlikely to let CSKA Moscow back in like Sparta Prague did in the last Round, while they have a very strong home record in recent games as well as in recent European games which included 2 wins in 3 Champions League Group Stage games last season.

On the other hand, CSKA Moscow haven't been the best travellers in recent Champions League seasons and Sporting Lisbon may have the narrow lead to take to the Russian capital next week.

Skenderbeu Korce v Dinamo Zagreb PickThere is little doubt that Dinamo Zagreb are the favourites to beat Skenderbeu Korce over the two legs of this Champions League Play Off, especially with the experience the Croatian side have playing these types of games. They haven't used that fully to their advantage in the last couple of years with a couple of losses prior to the Champions League Group Stage, but they've played Europa League Group Stage football and Dinamo Zagreb have a lot more experience than Skenderbeu Korce.

The latter have already made history by becoming the first Albanian team to make the Group Stage of either European competition, but Skenderbeu Korce won't be satisfied with a place in the Europa League. Skenderbeu have been very good at home in European football, albeit not playing teams of the level of Dinamo Zagreb too often, and they might feel a positive result gives them a great chance to progress to the Champions League Group Stage.

Dinamo Zagreb have proved very effective away from home in the qualifiers though, winning 6 in a row before the run was ended in a 3-3 draw with Molde. However, Dinamo Zagreb were 0-3 up in Norway and had the big edge with the away goals after a goalless draw at home which allow complacency to set in as they blew the lead.

This is the First Leg so I am expecting Dinamo Zagreb to be focused throughout, but I think the Croatian side will be expecting to complete the win at home in the Second Leg. Their performances away from home in Champions League Qualifiers will see Dinamo Zagreb well backed even at odds on, but I have a feeling Skenderbeu Korce can give themselves a chance for the Second Leg.

The Albanian team have been strong at home in European games and they can give Dinamo Zagreb something to think about, if not quite win the game. I have to respect how well Dinamo Zagreb have done on their travels in Champions League Qualifiers, but I fancy Skenderbeu Korce will battle to keep this tie alive and might be worth backing on the Asian Handicap to avoid defeat.

Rapid Vienna v Shakhtar Donetsk PickThe First Legs of the Play Off ties in the Champions League last season were incredibly tight games that didn't produce a lot of goals. In fact two out of ten First Leg ties ended with two goals or fewer last season and just four out of ten the season before which goes to show how important these matches are for every team that is taking part.

Rapid Vienna and Shakhtar Donetsk could very possibly go in a different direction to the trend that runs through the First Leg ties over the last couple of years in this Round though.

All eight of Rapid Vienna's games in the 2015/16 season to this point have featured at least three goals as they have looked very good going forward, but also vulnerable at the back. Both games with Ajax in the Third Qualifying Round featured at least four goals scored and Rapid Vienna will be all too aware that they would like to take a lead to the Ukraine next week.

The question really is whether Shakhtar Donetsk will be able to impose their play on the First Leg as they have shown some defensive strength in the Champions League in the past. Shakhtar Donetsk have kept clean sheets in 3 of their last 5 away games in the Champions League, although they did concede seven at Bayern Munich in the Knock Out Stage last season.

In those 5 games, Shakhtar Donetsk have scored seven against BATE Borisov, but only one goal in the other 4 games. In fact, Shakhtar Donetsk have scored just eight goals in their last 7 away games in the Champions League with seven coming in the one game against BATE. Shakhtar Donetsk should have chances in this one with the way Rapid Vienna approach things, but it might need an early goal to spark this match into life.

I fully expect Rapid Vienna to try and take the game to Shakhtar Donetsk and that should lead to a more open game than the Play Off Round First Legs generally produce. With all of the Rapid Vienna games hitting at least three goals shared, both teams should have opportunities in this one and hopefully an early goal will come to really get the entertainment going in the Austrian capital.

Valencia v Monaco PickThere is some uncertainty in the Valencia squad as their new season gets underway with an important Champions League Play Off tie the first fixture for them to negotiate. Nicolas Otamendi looks certain to be leaving Valencia before the end of the transfer window and he is unlikely to be considered for this match, while meeting the dangerous Monaco team that most wanted to avoid.

Monaco are not the free-spending team of a couple of years ago, but there is still some talent in the squad and they are a particularly dangerous team on their travels. The pace and counter-attacking style is going to make them an awkward team for Valencia to deal with, especially when you consider Valencia are playing their first match of the season, but this is usually a fortress for the Spanish side.

Before a defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in 2013, Valencia had won all eight home games they had played against French opposition and will feel a lead in this First Leg will give them a big edge in Monte Carlo next week. You can't have anything but respect for a Monaco team that has won 3 of their last 4 away games in the Champions League, but all of the sales made over the last twelve months has to eventually take its toll on the squad.

I can only see a tight, tense battle develop between these teams, but Valencia have won their last 3 European games here, albeit two seasons ago, and won 15 of 19 home games in La Liga last season. The home advantage should give them the edge in this First Leg as long as they can control the Monaco counter-attack and deal with the potential fatigue that could set in as this is their first game.

Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad have negotiated two very tough ties in the Play Off Round in the last couple of years, the latter beating Lyon of France two years ago. I can see Valencia following suit by at least taking a lead to Monaco next week with a narrow win in the First Leg.

Sparta Prague v Thun PickIf Sparta Prague can get past the disappointment of losing in the Champions League Third Qualifying Round, they will be a pretty big favourite to beat Thun in this Europa League Play Off Round. Sparta Prague did that twelve months ago after being beaten by Malmo in the Champions League as they comfortably saw off PEC Zwolle, although it is arguable that their defeat in the Champions League this season to CSKA Moscow was a more devastating one.

Either way, Sparta Prague have bounced back from that loss with back to back League wins and they had a very strong record at home in recent European games before the defeat to CSKA Moscow.

The confidence should still be higher in the home team than in the Thun camp who are currently bottom of the Switzerland Super League and face their toughest test in the Europa League this season. Thun are not good travellers in the competition in recent games and they have looked very vulnerable defensively which should give Sparta Prague the edge in this First Leg.

Sparta Prague have scored at least twice in all of their home games this season and last season they won 5 of their 6 home European games and all of those by at least two goals. Thun have been conceding far too many goals and Sparta Prague can definitely put themselves in a strong position for the Second Leg next week in Switzerland.

Ajax v Jablonec PickThis is an interesting Europa League Play Off tie that might be more finely balanced than the layers initially thought as Ajax try to bounce back from a disappointing Champions League exit. Jablonec have shown their quality with an impressive 2-3 win at Copenhagen in the Third Qualifying Round, but the level goes up for them and they have struggled in previous years to bridge that gap.

Jablonec have been hard pressed to put together back to back seasons with high finishes in the Czech Republic domestic League and this looks another year where they will struggle to hit the heights of their 3rd place finish from last season.

In previous years in the Europa League, Jablonec have lost comfortably at AZ Alkmaar and Real Betis so visiting the Amsterdam Arena could be a really tough evening for them. Ajax didn't exactly show their defensive strength in their Champions League defeat to Rapid Vienna, but the side have plenty of goals in the squad and I think they can win this First Leg.

My one concern with this Asian Handicap has to be the fact that Ajax haven't really been able to win home games by more than a couple of goals in recent European games. However, many of those have come against teams of a higher quality than Jablonec who have yet to reach the Europa League Group Stage and I think the experiences Ajax have in the Champions League will help them put themselves in a strong position for the return leg in the Czech Republic.

Bordeaux v Kairat Almaty PickThis hasn't been the start to the new season that Bordeaux would have hoped for as they blew a 1-0 lead in their opening game to fall to a defeat and failed to also win their second game of the new French Ligue 1 season. However, Bordeaux did see off AEK Larnaca in the Third Qualifying Round of the Europa League and I do think they are going to be a little too good for Kairat Almaty in this First Leg.

I would be surprised if Bordeaux under-estimated what Kairat Almaty are bringing to the table, but this is comfortably the toughest away game that the Kazakhstan team will have faced. The win in Belgrade over Red Star was impressive, but Kairat Almaty saw the home team reduced to ten men early in that game and it would take something similar to happen for them to earn the win here.

Of course Kairat Almaty will be confident having lost just 1 of their last 19 games in all competitions, but the level of opposition is not quite up to what Bordeaux should be able to bring to the table.

As long as there isn't complacency shown by Bordeaux, I think they can win the First Leg in a manner that could make life a lot easier when they make the long, long trip to Kazakhstan next week. I do wonder if that travel has taken something from Kairat Almaty in this game too, although they dealt with the trip to Aberdeen effectively.

Unfortunately Bordeaux are a stronger side than Aberdeen and I fancy them to win this one and cover the Asian Handicap.

Odd Grenland v Borussia Dortmund PickThere does look to be a big gap in quality between Odd Grenland and Borussia Dortmund and I would expect that to show up in both Legs of this Play Off tie, including in Norway. The start that Borussia Dortmund have made to the new season has only increased the expectation on them and I would be surprised with anything other than a lead to be taken back to Germany next week.

However, the layers are taking no chances with Borussia Dortmund and they are being asked to cover a couple of goals if you want a full pay out for a win here. Instead I think there is something in the fact that Dortmund have yet to concede a goal this season and I think they can go to Norway and come back with a lead coupled with a clean sheet.

Odd Grenland have scored plenty of goals at home in recent games but the quality they have faced is not up to the level that Borussia Dortmund can produce. If the home side is perhaps a little overawed, Dortmund should have control of the game and that should see them through with a clean sheet.

Borussia Dortmund won a couple of their away games in the Champions League Group Stage without conceding last season and they also beat Wolfsberger in the Third Qualifying Round with a clean sheet. Backing them to win the First Leg in Norway in the same manner looks a decent shout.

Southampton v Midtjylland PickThe Europa League has regularly made it difficult for teams in England to balance their commitments to this competition as well as maintaining their Premier League form. That is always a big concern for some of the smaller squads in the Premier League and while West Ham United made it clear they were not going to put in a full team in this competition in the early Rounds, Ronald Koeman has spoken of the importance of the Europa League for Southampton.

It would be a real surprise if the 0-3 loss to Everton has completely reversed his opinion, so Southampton should have a strong team out in a difficult looking tie. Midtjylland are used to winning games and are once again on top of the Danish domestic League as they bid to retain the title they won last season, while they have dropped out of the Champions League into the Europa League.

This is a team that has produced some really solid results away from home in recent European ties, although they haven't been able to turn those results into wins over two Legs. Midtjylland have won both away games played in the Champions League, but they were beaten handily by Panathinaikos in the Europa League last season and Southampton will feel they can get the better of them.

That will be far from easy for The Saints who need to bounce back from a disappointing home performance last weekend. Southampton had some nerves to contend with in their home win over Vitesse in the Third Qualifying Round and rumours that Saido Mane is a target for Manchester United might also unsettle them a little.

However, you have to think home field is going to be important in this one despite all the winning that Midtjylland have done both at home and in Europe to open the season. Southampton will look to put themselves in a commanding position before the return Leg in Denmark and I think they can cover the Asian Handicap after coming through some nervy moments in this First Leg on the south coast.

MY PICKS: Manchester United Win to Nil @ 2.15 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Sporting Lisbon @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Skenderbeu Korce + 0.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.95 Bet365 (2 Units)
Rapid Vienna-Shakhtar Donetsk Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.00 Betway (2 Units)
Valencia @ 1.83 William Hill (2 Units)
Sparta Prague - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.91 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Ajax - 1 Asian Handicap @ 2.05 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Bordeaux - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.00 Bet365 (2 Units)
Borussia Dortmund Win to Nil @ 1.91 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Southampton - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 2.00 Ladbrokes (2 Units)

August Update2-12, - 17.70 Units (26 Units Staked, - 68.08% Yield)

Season 2014/15159-208-5, - 20.22 Units (647 Units Staked, - 3.13% 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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