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Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Midweek Football Picks 2016 (August 16-18)

After the first three picks of the 2016/17 season fell short of the mark, I was wondering if I was about to suffer the beginning of another awful August to continue the trend of recent seasons.

However the last three picks bounced back to close those losses and now we move onto a loaded midweek schedule filled with Champions League and Europa League Play Off Round First Legs as well as the third round of games in the lower Leagues in England.

This weekend will see the opening of the Spanish Primera Division and Italian Serie A as the new season really start picking up steam, although that momentum is snapped early in September when the World Cup Qualifiers means there is a two week break from August 28th until September 10th.

You might have noticed the new 'Featured Post' I have set up on the blog's main page which will prevent some of these picks falling too far down once the tennis picks are being played on a daily basis. I will mainly use the 'Featured Post' to feature the Weekend Football Picks as well as the College Football and NFL Picks which will be made from the beginning of September as those threads usually cover a few days and can easily slip down the page.

It is a big week for the likes of Manchester City and Celtic who are trying to earn a place in the Champions League Group Stage, while West Ham United have a chance of earning revenge against Astra who knocked them out of the Europa League last season.

I would also guess Rafa Benitez is facing a big week at Newcastle United who have made a poor start to life in the Championship and then we will move onto the Premier League games which will begin on Friday this week for the first time this season.

Hopefully the picks can move forward effectively after the last three came in as winners and get this August off to an unusually good start.

Ajax v Rostov PickThe Champions League Play Off Round will be played over the next nine days as teams bid to get into the Group Stage alongside some of the biggest names in European football. Both Ajax and Rostov have to be happy with the draw that will see them play each other twice for one of those places and we could see two competitive matches between them.

The layers are less sure with Ajax coming into the First Leg as a healthy favourite to take an advantage to Russia next week. They do look short when you consider the last 4 home European games have seen Ajax draw with Celtic, Fenerbahce, Molde and PAOK in the last Round, while Ajax were also beaten 2-3 by Rapid Vienna in the Third Qualifying Round of the Champions League last season.

Ajax certainly have the edge in terms of European experience and they have played in the Champions League Group Stage just two seasons ago, while Rostov are only in one of the big two European competitions for the second time in their history. However their 0-2 win at Anderlecht in the Third Qualifying Round Second Leg was a huge result for Rostov and they have continued to perform effectively despite some financial issues they have been suffering over the last twelve months.

You have to think Rostov will look to be tough to beat and catch Ajax on the counter attack to give themselves a chance in the Second Leg next week at home. They should be able to make life difficult for Ajax who have struggled under the weight of expectation at home in recent European games and that might be the case on Tuesday as the fans will expect them to win this one.

Rostov showed in Zenit St Petersburg that they are capable and scoring twice there and in Anderlecht makes them a dangerous opponent. Ajax have won just 5 of their last 12 home games in the Champions League and only 2 of those have come by more than a single goal margin and I think backing Rostov on the Asian Handicap could be the play this week.

Even a one goal defeat for Rostov would return half of the stakes and Ajax's run of games without a win at home in European competition can't be ignored, while they have also drawn 4 of their last 6 home games in all competitions.

Steaua Bucharest v Manchester City PickThere were many other potential opponents in the Champions League Play Off that might have given Manchester City a real problem over two Legs, but they will be happy they have been set up with Steaua Bucharest. The Romanian side have been talking up their chances of earning the upset after a really positive start to the new season, and they might have half a chance if Manchester City are still trying to find their feet under Pep Guardiola's guidance.

The win over Sunderland was not Manchester City at their best while the full backs are being asked to fulfil different roles when the team have the ball as they are almost making it five players across the centre of midfield. Overloading those areas is fair enough but Guardiola was asking Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna to play a lot of creative passes which is clearly not their strength.

I can imagine his tactics will take some time getting used to, but Manchester City can't afford to start too slowly with this Play Off tie huge for them. Going out of the Champions League before the Group Stage would be a massive blow, but you have to think there is too much quality in the squad to actually fall to an upset over two Legs.

The first game in Romania will be tough as Steaua Bucharest are in fine form and beat Sparta Prague 2-0 here in the last Round, an impressive result when thinking Sparta Prague reached the Quarter Final of the Europa League in April. However Steaua Bucharest did not play that well here last season when faced with the increased quality in Europe compared with their domestic League and the side lost to both Trencin and Rosenborg while drawing with Partizan Belgrade in front of their own fans.

None of those three teams would be favourites to beat Manchester City and I do think the English team can show the extra quality they have to wear down Steaua Bucharest. The home team can't afford to play things too tight as they will want to have a lead to take to The Etihad Stadium next week and I think Manchester City will be able to pick them off.

Manchester City might not have the best away record in the Champions League, but they have mainly come against teams that are superior to Steaua Bucharest. In the last three seasons Manchester City have won half of their 14 away games in the Champions League and 4 of those wins have come by more than one goal. They have won 0-3 at Viktoria Plzen, 1-2 at CSKA Moscow and 1-3 at Dynamo Kiev in that time and I will back Manchester City to record a comfortable win in Romania to put one foot into the Group Stage.

Aston Villa v Huddersfield Town PickThe scoreboard might have suggested Aston Villa had an 'easy' afternoon on Saturday when beating Rotherham United 3-0, but there were some real scares for them in that match especially when only leading 1-0.

It is a big win to boost the confidence, but their visitors will also be heading into this match with plenty of belief as Huddersfield Town secured a very impressive 1-2 win at Newcastle United last time out.

That follows a 2-1 League win over Brentford and all three Huddersfield Town matches so far in the new season have provided at least three goals shared out. While they have looked good going forward, defensively Huddersfield Town can be vulnerable and Aston Villa have shown they can take advantage of any chances that they do create.

This match has all the makings of being a 2-1 scoreline either way as both teams have shown attacking threats mixed with some defensive problems. At odds against, backing at least three goals shared out looks the call.

Leeds United v Fulham PickWith an owner that has been as trigger happy on the sacking button as Massimo Cellino has been since taking over at Leeds United, Garry Monk has to be feeling the pressure after back to back League losses. Now they have to take on surprise package Fulham at Elland Road where the big crowd comes with plenty of expectations every week which seems to cripple the team from expressing themselves.

I am not sure where I stand on Fulham who have surprised me twice already this season with unexpected wins, but they are not as big outsiders in this one as they have been in their first two League wins.

That will change the mindset and I will be keeping an eye on where Fulham go after this game, but I do think they can contribute to a decent spectacle for the fans on Tuesday.

Leeds United have looked poor defensively, but will be expected to attack at home which should see chances created at both ends. Fulham had 15 of 23 away games see three goals shared out last season and they have already opened with two more in the last week and I think the odds against quotes have to be backed for at least three goals scored in this match.

Norwich City v Bristol City PickI am not sure why the Norwich City fans seemed so willing to get on the backs of their players after the goalless draw with Sheffield Wednesday, but Alex Neil showed enough resolve as manager last season to not be overly concerned about that reaction from the supporters.

That game on Saturday was between two teams who will likely challenge for promotion to the Premier League, but Norwich City should have a better chance of recording a win when facing Bristol City. The Robins have made a brilliant start to the new season, but may have benefited from what looks a decent set of fixtures on paper.

Now they are in for a much tougher match than the likes of Wigan Athletic and Burton Albion, two promoted teams from League One, and Bristol City struggled when visiting the best teams in the Championship last season. While they will be more confident having won all 3 games played so far this season, it might be tough to bridge the gap between themselves and a relegated team from the Premier League and I think Norwich City will earn the win to send the fans home happier than they were on Saturday.

Celtic v Hapoel Be'er Sheva PickThe Champions League is clearly the priority for Celtic at this stage of the season and failing to get to the Group Stage for a third consecutive season would be a big blow to Brendan Rodgers and the club. The last couple of years have seen Celtic lose to Maribor and Malmo in the Play Off Round of the competition after negotiating the earlier Qualifying Rounds, but arguably Hapoel Be'er Sheva are the weakest of the trio they have faced.

Some may even argue that the tie against Astana in the Third Qualifying Round was the more difficult one, but that means increased expectation on the Celtic players. Having the home game first will increase the pressure too as Celtic will feel they need some sort of lead to take to Israel next week, although they can't afford to underestimate Hapoel Be'er Sheva.

The Israeli Champions have shown they can dig in and battle for a result in their goalless draws at Sheriff Tiraspol and Olympiacos in the Champions League already. Like Celtic, Hapoel Be'er Sheva could easily suggest their Third Qualifying Round opponent, Olympiacos, is tougher than the one they see in the Play Off Round, but there is less experience in the Israeli squad compared with Celtic.

Hapoel Be'er Sheva have had two upset wins to get into this Play Off Round, but I can't shift their losses to RNK Split and Thun from my mind and feel they might have overachieved already. They lost the away Leg in both of those Europa League Second Qualifying Round ties and I do think Celtic will have enough quality to find a way to earn a narrow win in this one.

The tie should be far from over for when they recommence battle next week in the Second Leg, but I do expect Celtic to begin that Leg with some sort of lead to defend.

Dundalk v Legia Warsaw PickIt has been a special run which has taken Dundalk through to the Champions League Play Off Round and the 3-0 win over BATE Borisov in the Third Qualifying Round has to be one of their biggest wins in their history. Beating Legia Warsaw would surpass that and put Dundalk alongside some of the biggest names in European football, and the players have admitted they are going into the match without an 'inferiority complex' weighing them down.

There is a lot to admire about the run Dundalk have had, but I can't help feel they have perhaps been overrated a little in this First Leg. They haven't lost any of their last 3 home games, but Dundalk did have to settle for a 1-1 draw with FH from Iceland and they were comfortably seen off by Hajduk Split in Ireland just a couple of years ago.

Home advantage might not be as strong as normal either with the game being played at the Aviva Stadium due to the demand for tickets. Plenty in the crowd will be there to see Legia Warsaw too and the Polish Champions have come through tougher tests already in the Champions League to make it to the Play Off Round.

Only two years ago Legia Warsaw came to Dublin and beat Irish Champions St Patrick's Athletic 0-5 and while I can't see it being that easy this week, I do think the away side are considerably stronger.

Unlike BATE Borisov, Legia Warsaw have a decent away record in European competition and have won at St Patrick's Athletic and Celtic in recent years. I expect they can make their quality count in this one and the odds against quotes are tempting enough to see Legia Warsaw have any kind of advantage heading to Poland next week.

Porto v Roma Pick: This is arguably the best Play Off Round tie and there isn't a lot to separate Porto and Roma as both teams are desperate to make the Champions League Group Stage. The home advantage and the fact their season has already begun might favour Porto, but Roma aren't far behind when it comes to their fitness as their own domestic campaign begins this weekend.

However Roma haven't always been the best travelling team in Europe and so the key for them might be to head to Portugal and look to grab an away goal even in a narrow defeat to take back to the Italian capital. That would still make Roma favourites to progress, but I really don't think there will be much between the teams over both Legs.

The Porto home form isn't as strong as some of the previous teams have produced and they did end last season with 2 losses from their final 5 games here. While they did beat Chelsea in the Champions League at home, Porto lost their last 2 European home games against Dynamo Kiev and Borussia Dortmund, but they had won 8 of 9 home games in the Champions League before the loss to Dynamo Kiev.

On the other hand, Roma are unbeaten in 10 games in all competitions since their 2-0 loss at Real Madrid in the Champions League Second Round and they did lost 3 of their 4 away games in the Champions League last season. Two of those came against Real Madrid and Barcelona, but it is the defeat at BATE Borisov that was the stand out result for Roma.

Goals weren't a problem in Roma away games last season and they will likely push for an away goal or two in this one. The onus is on Porto to attack too as they look to get a lead to protect for the Second Leg and I will back at least three goals to be shared out in what are normally tight First Leg affairs.

Villarreal v Monaco PickAntonio Cordon is the big link between Villarreal and Monaco as he has moved from the former to the latter in the summer. Cordon has been considered a key part of the Villarreal recruitment policy in recent years which has rejuvenated this club and he is expected to do the same for Monaco who are someway of the pace set by Paris Saint-Germain in France.

However it will be events on the pitch that will determine which of these teams makes it through the Play Off Round and into the Champions League Group Stage. Both Villarreal and Monaco might have hoped to avoid one another in this Round and I can see this being a close contest over two Legs.

In both cases I think the home advantage is going to be of real importance and Monaco showed those vulnerabilities on their travels that Villarreal will be looking to exploit. Monaco have not won any of their last 5 away European games and have lost 3 of those including a defeat in Spain to Valencia in the Play Off Round last season.

On the other hand Villarreal have won 7 in a row at home in European competition and have won 11 of their last 13 here. They will be looking to get on the front foot and give themselves some sort of advantage to take into the Second Leg next week and I do think Villarreal can win the First Leg.

Radamel Falcao has scored in the last two Champions League games for Monaco but could potentially be missing for this First Leg which will give Villarreal a boost in confidence. Even though the home team have made some changes to the starting eleven with their transfer dealings over the summer, I think Villarreal can continue their fine home European form and give themselves a narrow advantage to take to Monaco next week for the Second Leg.

Cardiff City v Blackburn Rovers PickBoth Cardiff City and Blackburn Rovers have made poor starts to the new season but they will both be heading into this fixture feeling they have a good chance to turn around their immediate fortunes.

The edge has to be given to Cardiff City who are hosting this match and who had played well at home for much of last season. Their 0-2 defeat to Queens Park Rangers on Sunday was a surprising loss and Cardiff City have yet to score in 3 games in all competitions this season, but they are facing a porous Blackburn Rovers defence in this one.

Owen Coyle must already be under pressure as Blackburn Rovers manager thanks to seven goals conceded in a couple of League games, but I don't want to rule a line through this team in this match. They did struggle when facing the best teams in the Division away from home last season, and I do think this is going to be a difficult season for Blackburn Rovers, but the lack of goals in the Cardiff City squad to open the season is a concern when backing the home team.

However the odds against quotes for Cardiff City are tempting enough as they should remain tough to play in Wales and I will back them to win this one.

Newcastle United v Reading PickHaving expected Newcastle United to win in each of the first two games of the League season, it was unexpected that I have been wrong both times as they have surprisingly lost to both Fulham and Huddersfield Town. That makes this game a huge one for Newcastle United and Rafa Benitez especially as The Toon Army could be right on the brink of revolt if they see their side lose another League game already.

Last time in the Championship Newcastle United only lost 4 games all season so falling to a third defeat before the end of the first month would be a huge blow to The Magpies.

Facing Reading means a meeting with another club that are expected to be in the bottom half of the League table, but Newcastle United can't underestimate them after falling to Fulham and Huddersfield Town. Reading have at least won a game already this season in the League, but their away record over the last twelve months in the Championship has been disappointing.

I might be a little foolish in backing Newcastle United this week, but they look a decent price to get back on the horse against a team that lost 14 of 23 away games last season and already went down 2-0 at Wolves this past weekend. Failure in this one could easily cost Rafa Benitez his job, but I expect the Spaniard to get it right and help Newcastle United to the three points and ease the pressure on himself.

Astana v BATE Borisov PickBoth Astana and BATE Borisov have to get over the disappointment of missing out on the Champions League Group Stage having both been playing in that part of the competition last season. Both would have felt they should have beaten Celtic and Dundalk respectively, but the winner of this tie could still face some major European names with the likes of Manchester United and Inter Milan in the Groups of the Europa League.

Home advantage is likely to be key for both clubs over the next week and I think Astana can give themselves an advantage to take to Belarus in the Second Leg.

Astana are unbeaten in 8 home European games and they did win 3 Qualifiers here last season in the Champions League and they did hold the likes of Atletico Madrid and Benfica here. If they had taken their chances Astana would have added Celtic to the list of teams they have beaten here over the last twelve months and they will be hard to stop in front of their own fans.

On the other hand BATE Borisov have failed to win any of their last 18 away European games and have lost 12 of those games. Defeats in Debrecen, Partizan Belgrade and Dundalk suggests there is some sort of mental block for BATE Borisov outside of Belarus that they have to resolve and this is a tough place to do that.

This will be a tight tie over two Legs and there isn't a lot between them, but I think Astana can make home advantage count to give them a narrow lead for the Second Leg.

Austria Vienna v Rosenborg PickIf this Europa League Play Off Round tie is anything like when Austria Vienna met Rosenborg in the 1993/94 Champions League then the neutrals are in for a treat.

Both of those games were high-scoring, attacking and dramatic matches but both Austria Vienna and Rosenborg are much changed teams now.

Austria Vienna are back in European competition after a couple of years of missing out but they have struggled at home, while Rosenborg might feel they should still be trying to get into the Champions League Group Stage after going out thanks to three injury time goals to APOEL in the Third Qualifying Round.

The Rosenborg away games in recent European games have tended to be high-scoring as they have shown they can score goals, but also seem to be vulnerable defensively. They had also conceded three times in 3 away games in a row before beating Viking 0-2 last time out, while Austria Vienna's home games have produced nine goals in the last couple of games.

I do think both teams will give this First Leg a go and I am looking for goals to be shared out by the two sides. A gut feeling says Rosenborg snap their recent run of 4 consecutive away defeats in Europe to give themselves a platform to move into the Europa League Group Stage, but I can't see them keeping a clean sheet in this one either.

Astra v West Ham United PickThere looks to be a clear shift in how Slaven Bilic views the Europa League this season compared with the attitude last season and so a stronger West Ham United team are expected to take on Astra this time around. Last season a much changed team took the lead in Romania but were eventually beaten 2-1 and a stronger starting line up is expected in this one.

However West Ham United have not been at their best away from home in recent games compared with how well they began last season in the Premier League. The defeat at Chelsea saw a flat performance from The Hammers, but they are not expected to make wholesale changes as they did when they visited Astra last season.

It also has to be said that Astra's recent form is not the most impressive and they have already been disappointed with an early Champions League exit. However they have saved their best performances in European competition for their home games and Astra are unbeaten in 6 home games in Europe which makes odds on quotes for a West Ham United win look short enough.

Add in the fact that West Ham United have lost their last 3 away games in Europe as well as their last 3 away games overall and you have to have the feeling that Slaven Bilic would take a draw to finish the job at home next week. Last season only a James Collins sending off turned the home tie with West Ham United 2-0 up and they will believe they can win at home as long as they don't have a big deficit to overcome.

I do expect a strong West Ham United team to take to the field in this one. Even with that in mind, I think they look short in a match they would be happy to take a draw and I am happy to back Astra on the Asian Handicap where a one goal loss would return half the stakes.

Trencin v Rapid Vienna PickThe poor home form in European football has cost Trencin their place in the Group Stage of either the Champions League or Europa League in recent seasons. Trencin have had some good results too, but winning over two Legs is a tough proposition, while the side have made a poor start to the new season both domestically and in Europe.

While they are dropping from the Champions League into the Europa League, Rapid Vienna are still the favourites to come through this tie over two Legs. In fact the Austrian side are favourites to win the First Leg and I think they can be backed at odds against.

Rapid Vienna won away games at Ajax, Viktoria Plzen and Dinamo Minsk last season and also drew with Shakhtar Donetsk which shows they are more than capable of matching the wins Legia Warsaw, NK Olimpija and Steaua Bucharest have recorded here over the last twelve months.

The 1-4 win at Austria Vienna would only have improved the confidence for Rapid Vienna while Trencin have had a poor start at home this season with 3 losses in 4 games. At odds against the Austrian side can get the better of Trencin and give themselves a strong platform to progress to the Europa League Group Stage and I will back them to do that.

MY PICKS: Rostov + 0.75 Asian Handicap @ 1.95 Bet365 (2 Units)
Manchester City - 1 Asian Handicap @ 1.95 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Aston Villa-Huddersfield Town Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.05 William Hill (2 Units)
Leeds United-Fulham Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.00 Bet365 (2 Units)
Norwich City @ 1.83 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Celtic @ 1.67 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Legia Warsaw @ 2.15 Bet365 (2 Units)
Porto-Roma Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.20 Ladbrokes (2 Units)
Villarreal @ 2.05 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Cardiff City @ 2.00 Bet365 (1 Unit)
Newcastle United @ 1.73 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Astana @ 2.50 William Hill (2 Units)
Austria Vienna-Rosenborg Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.83 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Astra + 0.75 Asian Handicap @ 1.93 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Rapid Vienna @ 2.10 Bet Fred (2 Units)

August Update: 3-3, - 0.40 Units (12 Units Staked, - 3.33% Yield)

Season 2015/16133-174-2, + 0.89 Units (669 Units Staked, + 0% 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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