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Weekend Football Picks 2019 (February 15-18)

There was a real feeling of deflation at around 10pm on Tuesday evening once the Manchester United defeat to Paris Saint-Germain was confirm...

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Midweek Football Picks 2017 (August 15-17)

After what has felt a long wait to bring back Premier League Football, fans all over the country had to be excited about the potential of the season ahead after seeing some of the football played on the opening weekend.

Only Chelsea disappointed out of the leading contenders for the Premier League title, while there is a renewed optimism about being a Manchester United going into the season which will only have increased after the impressive dismantling of West Ham United.

I wrote a short piece about Manchester United and the new season before the weekend and that can be read here.

About the only thing that bothers me about the beginning of the season is the awfully early international break which comes at the end of this month which means a break between Sunday 27th August and Saturday 9th September. Before that we will see the draw for the Champions League/Europa League Group Stage and also the Third Round of the League Cup in England which means the fixture list begins to be filled up going through to the Christmas period.

At least in England we get three rounds of top flight football before the international break, which is far better than Germany, Italy and Spain whose top Divisions begin this weekend and only have the two rounds of games.

It was a mixed bag of results from the weekend football which produced a slight profit, although August has yet to really get going. This midweek we have the First Legs of the Champions League and Europa League Play Off Round ties to be played before we go into the weekend and more Premier League and top flight football.

In this thread I will have picks from the Champions League and Europa League Play Off Round ties which are played from Tuesday through Thursday night.

Hoffenheim v Liverpool Pick: Getting into the Champions League Group Stage is where the financial reward of this competition is really met and next season finishing 4th in the Premier League or Bundesliga will mean direct entry into the Group. That doesn't help either Hoffenheim or Liverpool going into the 2017/18 Champions League as they have to negotiate this Play Off Round if they want to get into the Group Stage which begins next month.

The two Legs over the next week are vital for both clubs although the pressure is likely to be on Liverpool with the past European history they hold. For Hoffenheim this is a maiden European adventure and they will be hoping to build on what was a stunning Bundesliga campaign.

The home Leg is likely to be critical for Hoffenheim having been unbeaten here in the League last season and beating the likes of Bayern Munich in the process. Losing a couple of key players in Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy is going to be difficult for Hoffenheim to replace and they are facing someone who will be familiar in their style when Jurgen Klopp brings Liverpool to town.

It is an important First Leg for Liverpool too who have not been at their best in recent away European ties. Things have been much different at Anfield and Liverpool have to come here looking for at least an away goal and making sure they have a slight edge when returning home next week.

It would be a surprise if Liverpool are not able to create chances with the pace they have in the final third and the likely space they are going to see in the away Leg. Liverpool should have a chance to play counter attacking football, although there will be a concern with how they have defended at Vicarage Road on Saturday.

Goals look to be the outcome of this one and I would be a little surprised if there aren't at least three shared out by these two teams. I considered backing Hoffenheim with the start on the Asian Handicap, but the loss of Sule and Rudy means I am less sure about them. However they will have to attack at home and will likely create chances against a Liverpool defence that still needs some work, while the Liverpool pace in the final third is a threat to any club they face.

The layers are of the same mind, but I will back at least three goals to be shared out in this First Leg.

Sporting Lisbon v Steaua Bucharest Pick: After some of the recent defeats Steaua Bucharest have had at this stage of the Champions League, you can understand why Sporting Lisbon are considered such strong favourites to win this Play Off Round tie. Being at home in the First Leg gives Sporting Lisbon the chance to put themselves in a strong position ahead of the trip to Romania next week, but Steaua Bucharest will think their recent experiences in the Qualifiers can help them achieve the upset.

It is asking a lot from Steaua Bucharest, but they have shown some attacking intent when playing away from home in Europe. Earning an away goal here will give Steaua Bucharest a chance in the Second Leg, but the majority of the play is going to come from Sporting Lisbon.

Anything other than a Sporting Lisbon win will be a real surprise, but the Asian Handicap might be a tough one for them to cover. Sporting Lisbon have had 1 clean sheet from their last 8 home European ties although the majority of those games have come against teams that were considered stronger than Steaua Bucharest.

Even with that in mind, Sporting Lisbon may offer Steaua Bucharest some chances in this one, although the home team should have enough in the final third to score the goals to win this one. This is a team that has scored plenty of goals in home European ties against teams outside of the European elite in recent years and I am looking for this Champions League Play Off tie to also produce at least three goals on the night.

Both teams scoring is not of the question in this one, but there is always the possibility that Sporting Lisbon dominate the tie completely and overall it feels like a fixture that will produce at least three goals.

Celtic v Astana Pick: There will be familiarity with this Play Off Round tie in the Champions League having paired Celtic and Astana together twelve months ago in the Third Qualifying Round. On that occasion the Second Leg was played here at Celtic Park, but this time around the teams will meet in Kazakhstan in the Second Leg which does change some of the dynamics of the tie.

It is a big tie for both Celtic and Astana having dominated their domestic League and knowing the financial rewards that come with a place in the Champions League Group Stage. That increases the pressure on both teams and I imagine this is going to be a tight tie over the next two weeks with both Celtic and Astana confident in their chances to progress.

The injuries in the Celtic team have to be a concern when you think how close this tie was twelve months ago. It took an injury time penalty for Celtic to come through 3-2 on aggregate although the players may come in with more confidence than they did back then having played so well in the last twelve months.

Celtic have been very good in home Qualifiers having won 7 in a row before the home draw with Rosenborg in the Third Qualifying Round. They didn't play well in that game, but Celtic have Leigh Griffiths back in contention which should give them better balance going forward.

You have to respect Astana who are going to be playing in the Group Stage of a European competition for the third season in a row which is unprecedented for a side from Kazakhstan. Everything for them depends on the First Leg as they have lost 5 of their last 7 away European ties but at the same time have won 3 of 7 at home against those same teams.

Keeping it tight may be the play for Astana and I imagine they will be looking to frustrate Celtic. They should have some chances considering the injuries Celtic have at the heart of their defence, but I do think Celtic will have the majority of the play on the day and have shown they can pick up some real momentum when playing at home.

It may be a risk when you think how close it was when they played last season, but this time I am looking for Celtic to have enough to win by a couple of goals to put themselves in a strong position ahead of next week. I will back the Scottish Champions to cover the Asian Handicap in this one.

Hapoel Be'er Sheva v Maribor PickThis is a huge Play Off Round tie for both Hapoel Be'er Sheva and Maribor with the carrot of entering the Champions League Group Stage in front of them. Both teams will be going into a section with some huge names from European Football and the chance to host those names will only increase the pressure on the teams in the two ties to be played over the next seven days.

The home Leg is likely to be very important for both teams and I do give Hapoel Be'er Sheva the edge in the First Leg. They have won all 5 home Champions League Qualifiers played over the last thirteen months and the experience of reaching the Europa League Knock Out Round last season will surely help.

By the same token Hapoel Be'er Sheva have not been very good when playing away from home and so they have to have a lead to take to Maribor next week. Maribor have to be given their dues having won both away Champions League Qualifiers this season but they had lost 4 of 7 away European ties prior to this campaign.

The heavy losses at Astana and Qabala have to be a concern though and Hapoel Be'er Sheva have shown they are capable of winning home ties with some comfort. Both Celtic and Ludogorets Razgrad are experienced European teams who have lost by a couple of goals here over the last twelve months and I do think Hapoel Be'er Sheva will win this one.

Backing them to find a way to win by a couple of goals on the day at odds against looks the way to go. Maribor's last 4 away European losses have come by at least two goals each time and I think Hapoel Be'er Sheva will have the majority of the play in this First Leg and create the majority of chances.

Maribor will be looking to be in the tie when the Second Leg is played at their own home next week, but I will look for Hapoel Be'er Sheva to take a big step towards a first appearance in the Champions League Group Stage.

Napoli v Nice Pick: Both Napoli and Nice would have been hoping for an 'easier' Play Off Round tie in the Champions League than the one they have been handed. It is the Italian side who will go into the tie as the favourites to reach the Group Stage, but Nice showed last season that they are able to keep up with the likes of Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain domestically.

However they have made a relatively poor start to the 2017/18 season with no wins from their first 4 games in all competitions and needing a late equaliser in Amsterdam to get the better of Ajax. Back to back defeats to open the League campaign will have dented confidence, although Nice have to hope they can catch Napoli cold in their first game of the new campaign.

That may be a big ask considering how Napoli have kept their squad together this season compared with the last summer transfer window. A squad that knows exactly what is required of them could go very far in Serie A this season and Napoli are filled with goals which will make them dangerous to teams in the Champions League.

Better defensive performances are still required from Napoli if they are going to compete with the very best clubs, but this is a team who will be very good this year. Being at home in the First Leg should give Napoli enough of an advantage to build a lead in this tie before heading to the south of France next week.

With the goals they have in the squad and Nice's early season struggles, I think Nice will be looking to stay in the tie for as long as possible. However they were beaten comfortably in Schalke and Krasnodar away from home last season and I think Napoli will prove too good on the day.

It is a risk backing a team to win with a margin when playing their first game of the season, but I think Napoli have enough goals to have a healthy lead before the Second Leg and I will look for them to cover the Asian Handicap.

Milan v Shkendija Pick: When I was growing up, the standard setters for the top European clubs came from Italy and the leading team were Milan who won five of their seven European Cups between 1989 and 2007. It is quite strange to see Milan in the Europa League rather than the Champions League and even stranger to think they have not played in Europe at all over the last four years.

Things look to have changed for Milan with new investment in the club which has seen them sign some quality players and be linked with a number more before this transfer window closes. They have improved their League position three years in a row in Italy but it still may take some time to really see Milan restore their name alongside the very best in European Football.

Getting into the Champions League is the goal for the season for Milan, but they won't want to drop the Europa League at this stage of the campaign. Milan were comfortable winners in the Third Qualifying Round and they are big favourites to beat Shkendija in the Play Off Round for a place in the Europa League Group Stage.

Shkendija have won three Qualifying ties in a row for the second season in a row having previously lost all four Qualifying ties in European competition. The step up in class in this Play Off Round is going to be tough to bridge for Shkendija and I think Milan are likely going to win comfortably with a few more of their bigger signings likely to earn a start ahead of the Serie A season beginning.

Covering the Asian Handicap is likely to happen for Milan, but I think the key will be to ensure they don't offer up an away goal and backing the Italian giants to win with a clean sheet is the call.

Ajax v Rosenborg Pick: Both Ajax and Rosenborg will have been hugely disappointed to go out of the Champions League in the Third Qualifying Round but have a chance to make it into the Europa League Group Stage.

Ajax reached the Europa League Final last season so will be hoping for another deep run in the tournament, although they have lost some key players from that squad that reached Stockholm. Home form is going to be critical for Ajax who won all 7 home Europa League games last season, but whose 2-2 draw at the Amsterdam Arena against Nice meant they were beaten on away goals in the Champions League Third Qualifying Round.

There will be confidence in the Ajax ranks that they can win this First Leg at home, especially when you think how difficult things have been for Rosenborg in recent away European ties. Rosenborg were unbeaten in draws at Dundalk and Celtic in the Champions League this season, but previously they had lost 5 away games in a row and that has to be a concern.

You can understand why Ajax are such strong favourites in the First Leg, but this is a team that is going to be missing Davinson Sanchez and may be a little vulnerable defensively. However Ajax will also believe they have the attacking talent to take the game to Rosenborg and this could be one of the higher scoring games in the First Legs of the Europa League Play Off Round.

I do think Rosenborg can play their part too and I will back at least three goals to be shared out by the teams on Thursday.

Osijek v Austria Vienna Pick: You have to imagine both Osijek and Austria Vienna are looking at this tie as a good one in their bid to get into the Europa League Group Stage. Anything other than a close one that is decided next week in Vienna would be a real surprise.

The home Leg is going to be important for both teams and I do think Osijek can force a narrow advantage even if they have to work hard to get it. Playing at home has been important for them so far in the Europa League with 3 straight wins here, including one over PSV Eindhoven, but Osijek may have to raise their game again to get the better of Austria Vienna.

I have to respect the fact that Austria Vienna have won 5 of their last 7 away European ties over the last fourteen months which includes in all 4 Qualifying ties they have played in that time. They have even overcome poor home Legs in that time by winning in Spartak Trnava and AEL Limassol after failing to do that in the home First Leg, while last season 4 of their 5 Group Stage points came on their travels.

That makes Austria Vienna a dangerous team to face for Osijek who are not blessed with a lot of European experience. However the wins over PSV Eindhoven both home and away shows a team that is confident in their own chances and I think Osijek can continue the fine form they have been displaying at the start of the 2017/18 season.

It won't come easy, but Osijek to hold a narrow lead when travelling to the Austrian capital next week is my pick.

Partizan Belgrade v Videoton Pick: It can be difficult for teams to accept that they are not able to match others in Europe despite being one of the best in their domestic League. That is what Partizan Belgrade have had to face in the Champions League, but the Serbia Champions will be favoured to get past Videoton in this Play Off Round Qualifier.

The First Leg in Belgrade is going to be very important for Partizan Belgrade and they did have a long winning run at home snapped in the Champions League by Olympiacos. However the bigger worry may have been the League defeat here by Vozdovac, while they are facing a Videoton team who have gotten the better of Bordeaux in the Europa League already.

Videoton have been one of the better teams in Hungary in recent seasons but they have not worked their way through the Qualifiers to get into the Europa League Group Stage for some time. The win over Bordeaux will give them confidence and the key for Videoton is to still be in the tie when heading back home for the Second Leg next week.

They should be able to do that, although I do think they may be faced with a narrow deficit after the First Leg. Partizan Belgrade tend to play their best football at home and I will be looking for them to find enough in the final third to have a lead in the Second Leg, although Videoton may eventually show a little more to go through to the Group Stage.

Everton v Hajduk Split Pick: At this stage of the season this is far from an easy tie for Everton despite being big favourites to see of Hajduk Split. The new arrivals will take time to gel into a team and Ronald Koeman has previous in failing to get into the Europa League Group Stage when falling short with Southampton.

However Everton are facing a team in Hajduk Split who have found the Play Off Round a little too good for them in each of the last three seasons. They have won plenty of Qualifiers in that time, but dropping out in this Round shows there may be a ceiling as to how strong Hajduk Split can be.

I do think they can make life difficult for an Everton team who have yet to find the fluency they would have liked in the final third. However Everton have also looked decent in defensive positions and will be looking for a fourth straight clean sheet to open the season which will put them in a strong position for the Second Leg in Croatia next week.

Ideally Everton would win this by a couple of goals, but Koeman is still looking to bring in reinforcements in the final third which can make up for the loss of Romelu Lukaku.

Instead Koeman may take a pragmatic approach to the First Leg and ensure Everton at least have a clean sheet which would put them in a strong position for the Second Leg. Having a narrow lead will mean Everton improve their position too and I think that is what they will ultimately have to settle for so I will back Everton to win this one with a clean sheet.

MY PICKS: Hoffenheim-Liverpool Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.80 Bet365 (2 Units)
Sporting Lisbon-Steaua Bucharest Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.83 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Celtic - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.03 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Hapoel Be'er Sheva - 1 Asian Handicap @ 2.09 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Napoli - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.88 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Milan Win to Nil @ 1.61 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Ajax-Rosenborg Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.73 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Osijek @ 2.10 Ladbrokes (1 Unit)
Partizan Belgrade @ 1.86 Boyle Sports (1 Unit)

Everton Win to Nil @ 2.00 Bet Victor (1 Unit)

August 2017/18 Update: 8-10-1, - 0.72 Units (25 Units Staked, - 2.88% Yield)

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