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Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Midweek Football Picks 2017 (August 22-24)

We are into the final week of domestic football around the European Leagues with the next set of World Cup Qualifiers beginning at the end of the month.

Some teams will be desperate to put a win or two on the board to build some momentum, while others want to put an exclamation mark at the end of fixtures for the month.

This week we have the Second Round of the English League Cup being played as well as the Second Legs of the Champions League and Europa League Play Off Rounds. That means the excitement should be building for the Group Stage draw for the two competitions as the top teams begin to plan out the next three months of playing domestic and European football side by side.

As a Manchester United fan of course the excitement is being back in the Champions League with the team secured in the second pot for the draw. That means there is a chance of landing one of the big Champions from the top European Leagues, but importantly United will get a chance to avoid the likes of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain who all join the team in the second pot.

It could have been a really tough draw if United had slipped into the third pot, but that fate has been left to Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, if they complete their win over Hoffenheim.

I am looking forward to that on Thursday night, but before we get to the Champions League draw there are plenty of football matches to get through this week.


The weekend proved to be a really difficult one for the football picks but early in the season that can happen. There are still a couple of big weeks to go this week which can turn things around and hopefully that will begin this week with the Champions League, Europa League and League Cup Second Round matches to be played.


Astana v Celtic Pick: As an actual competitive tie, you would have to think Celtic’s 5-0 home win over Astana has given them more than one foot into the Group Stage of the Champions League this season. There is still the Second Leg to be played, but Celtic simply haven’t been beaten by this kind of margin too often in their history and Astana are not Barcelona (who did beat Celtic 7-0 at the Nou Camp last season).

Pride is about all that is at stake for Astana who are unbeaten in 19 home games in all competitions and in their last 14 home European ties as they get set to enter the Europa League Group Stage. They will want to show they are better than the performance at Celtic Park six days ago, but the chance of turning this tie in their favour looks long gone.

Despite the defensive injuries that Celtic have been dealing with, Brendan Rodgers has shown he can put together a solid enough team to make life difficult for Astana. There is almost no need for Celtic to come out of a tough defensive shell in this one and try and hit Astana on the counter attack, and that may make for a tight Second Leg.

I do think Rodgers will make changes to his starting eleven to keep players fresh even at this early stage of a new season. His approach away from home in the Champions League over the last thirteen months has been good enough to help Celtic make it into the Group Stage two years in a row and it would be a surprise if he changes that.

Since Rodgers has come in, Celtic have suffered narrow defeats at Lincoln Red Imps and Hapoel Be’er Sheva, drawn 1-1 at Astana, Borussia Monchengladbach and Manchester City, and then beaten Linfield and Rosenborg without conceding.

Goals have been in short supply in those games for both Celtic and the opposition with the game at Barcelona the exception to the rule. Only once in the 7 games mentioned above have Celtic conceded more than a single goal away from home, while they haven’t been as free-scoring as they are in Scotland with only one of those games seeing Celtic score more than once.

With the tie in the position it is, I don’t think Celtic will take too many risks and Rodgers will look to make his side tough to beat and hit Astana on the counter. Of course there is a chance Astana leave gaps late in the game that can be exploited, but they have shown they have been tough to beat at home in European competition.

Goals have been at a premium in Celtic away European games under Rodgers, while 5 of the last 7 Astana home European games have seen more than two goals shared out. The layers may have overestimated this Second Leg following the trend of the first and I will look for fewer than three goals shared out in the Kazakhstan capital at a decent price.


Nice v Napoli Pick: Go back a few years and backing an Italian side away from home in a European game they didn’t need to win would have been a foolish decision. However I think the Italian mindset is much more positive these days and no team underlines that point more than Napoli who are fantastic to watch going forward.

In all honesty Nice may just be glad to get back home only 2-0 down in this tie having been outplayed for long periods last week in Naples. Poor finishing cost Napoli a bigger lead, but they will be all the better having had two games under their belt before the Second Leg on Tuesday.

The winning momentum has continued for Napoli who have won both games played this season to make it 7 in a row in all competitions going back to the end of the 2016/17 campaign. That is a huge positive for Napoli who have the pace and precision in the final third to punish their hosts once Nice get into a position where they have to chase the game.

All respect has to be given to Nice having finished behind Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain last season, but they have not opened this season in good form. Snapping an 8 game run without a win with a 2-0 win over Guingamp here this weekend will help the players, but Napoli are far better than Guingamp and very dangerous in the final third.

I will admit I thought Napoli may be priced up at odds against here, but Nice’s form has contributed to the price. Chasing the deficit is likely to occur at some point and Napoli have won 5 of their last 8 away European ties to show they do have what it takes to win on the road.

The exceptions have been losses in Villarreal and Real Madrid and a draw in Besiktas in that time, but all three of those sides would be considered superior to this Nice one. Wins in Dynamo Kiev and Benfica in the Champions League Group Stage last season shows what Napoli can do and I am going to look for them to punish Nice on the counter attack and help themselves to a third consecutive win to open the new campaign.


Sevilla v Istanbul Basaksehir Pick: When this tie was drawn in the Champions League Play Off Round, it felt that the First Leg in Turkey was going to be the key for Istanbul Basaksehir if they wanted to stun Sevilla and make it through to the Champions League Group Stage. The 1-2 home loss in a rainstorm has put the Turkish club in an incredibly difficult position even if Sevilla don’t look as strong as last season.

The experiences Sevilla have had helped in dealing with the conditions last week and being at home should give them a clear advantage. The onus is on Istanbul Basaksehir to search for at least two goals to give themselves a chance and that should play into the hands of the hosts.

Key players and Jorge Sampaoli have departed Sevilla this summer and the 1-1 home draw with Espanyol perhaps underlines what is expected to be a tougher season than they have experienced for some time. However they showed they still have enough quality in the final third to hurt Istanbul Basaksehir who come into this one having conceded three goals in both away games played this season.

At some point Istanbul Basaksehir have to take a risk and I think that is when Sevilla will begin to pick them off and create chances to win the Second Leg. Istanbul Basaksehir showed enough last week to think they could be a threat if Sevilla are a little complacent, but I think Sevilla have enough experience in recent years to know how to handle the lead they have.

Sevilla have won 4 of their last 5 home European ties and I think they may be able to pick Istanbul Basaksehir off the longer the game goes on. That should give them every chance to cover the Asian Handicap on their way to the Champions League Group Stage draw on Thursday.


CSKA Moscow v Young Boys Pick: Since reaching the Last 16 of the 2011/12 Champions League competition, CSKA Moscow will be looking for a fifth consecutive Group Stage appearance. The last four have proven too difficult for CSKA Moscow who have finished 4th in their Group each time, but they have made it through the Qualifiers before and look set to do that again this season.

A 0-1 win in Switzerland puts CSKA Moscow in a commanding position in this Play Off Round tie and they get set to host Young Boys on Wednesday. Recent home games in the Champions League have not been the best for CSKA Moscow, but the majority of those have been played against teams considerably stronger than the opposition they will be facing in the Second Leg.

Young Boys have plenty of experience in their third straight year in the Champions League Qualifiers and aggregate wins over Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev deserve the respect they should get. However in both ties Young Boys overturned First Leg away deficits to get past the Ukrainian teams and things are different having lost the home Leg of this tie.

This is simply not a team who has travelled well in Europe with Young Boys losing 7 of their last 9 away European ties. That includes heavy losses in their last 5 away Champions League ties where they have conceded at least twice in each.

In this one Young Boys don’t have to rush to look for the away goal they gave up last week, but I do think at some stage they will have to commit men forward. That is because I believe CSKA Moscow will have the majority of the play considering they have been better at home.

CSKA Moscow did have to ride out the storm in Switzerland and perhaps are fortunate to be in front, but now they are there I do think they complete the aggregate win on Wednesday. There could be chances to win the game late on as Young Boys are perhaps pushed into a position to chase the game and I will look for CSKA Moscow to secure a second straight Qualifier win by being victorious in both Legs.


Liverpool v Hoffenheim Pick: A 1-2 away win in a European knock out tie is a very positive result and one that will give the returning home team every belief they have one foot in the next Round. However Liverpool will know it could have been all so different in Hoffenheim last week and Jurgen Klopp will have to ensure there is no complacency in the squad.

Hoffenheim missed an early penalty and then had the bulk of the first half chances but could not show the composure in front of goal they needed. Liverpool were much more clinical and they will appreciate their position as Hoffenheim can’t really afford to dig in at Anfield for the same length of time Crystal Palace were able to on Saturday.

At some point Hoffenheim have to find at least two goals to give themselves a chance, but there has to be a concern with the high line played last week. A similar line may give the likes of Mohammad Salah, Sadio Mane, Robert Firmino and possibly Daniel Sturridge plenty of room in which to operate and create chances.

Once Liverpool got in front last week they did look dangerous when going forward and I think that will be a real problem for Hoffenheim in the Second Leg. With the positive approach, Liverpool can play with the pace in the final third to expose their visitors and I do think the English club are going to be too strong.

It was the home form that helped Hoffenheim reach the Champions League Qualifiers with their 4th placed finish in the Bundesliga, so losing 1-2 at home is a huge blow for their chances. As much as you can point out Hoffenheim having the 3rd best away record in Germany last season, you can’t ignore they won just 5 of 17 away games.

Only 1 of those came against a team that finished in the top 7 in the Bundesliga and 2 of their 4 away League defeats came against teams that finished above them.

Liverpool may be missing Philippe Coutinho, but they have tended to play well against the top clubs. Last season they beat Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Arsenal and Everton here with both Chelsea and Manchester United escaping with draws. That shows how tough it will be for Hoffenheim who I believe missed their only real chance in the tie in the First Leg last week.

As Hoffenheim get a little desperate, Liverpool’s pace in the final third can exploit spaces as they began to last week in the First Leg. I think that leads to an impressive Liverpool win on the evening and gives them momentum to take into the big Premier League game against Arsenal on Sunday.


Accrington Stanley v West Brom Pick: Anyone who invests too much of their bank on the League Cup early Rounds has to question themselves with the uncertainty surrounding team selection throughout the Leagues a minefield to negotiate.

However I do think a small interest is warranted on an in-form Accrington Stanley side with the start on the Asian Handicap against the hot starting Baggies from the Premier League. The back to back wins for West Brom seems to have heavily influenced the price here as they look plenty short to win considering Tony Pulis’ previous lack of success in the Cup competitions.

He did reach the FA Cup Final with Stoke City in 2011, but generally Pulis’ aim is to make sure his players are ready to compete in the Premier League and get to the 40 point mark. The League Cup is a distraction early in the season for the manager and last season Northampton Town from League One beat West Brom in this Round.

Accrington Stanley also put pay to Burnley this time last season and have beaten 3 teams from higher Divisions at home in the League Cup over the last twelve months. That includes a win over Preston North End in the First Round and I think the home side can make life difficult for West Brom.

I might be being a little disrespectful to the Pulis League Cup record at his last three clubs, but I have no doubt the fixture against Stoke City on Sunday is taking priority. With Accrington Stanley scoring goals for fun at home, I will look for the League Two club to keep this competitive but restrict stakes to a minimum unit.


Brighton v Barnet Pick: There looks to be little doubt that Chris Hughton will be making wholesale changes to his Brighton team with the Premier League taking priority over any potential League Cup run. However that doesn't mean Hughton is going to be willing to throw away this competition, while the fringe players who get an opportunity have to take this chance to show they are good enough to be considered for Premier League starts.

Brighton are in a position where they will be keen to put a first win on the board in the 2017/18 season and try to use that to build some momentum. Lose this and then the tough game at Watford will be one that Brighton wouldn't be able to afford to lose and head into the international break with a poor August behind them.

On the other hand Brighton have to think a win here may give them squad a confidence boost before the trip to Vicarage Road.

Playing lower League opposition at home will give Brighton every chance to put their first win on the board even if the wide changes are made to the starting eleven. Barnet have made a decent start to the season which will give them belief, but they are a League Two club who struggled in 2017 before this month.

This is a team that has lost plenty of games away from home in recent months and I think Barnet may struggle to just cope with a squad of players that is at the very least a strong Championship one. If they were home perhaps Barnet could have sprung a surprise, but being at the Amex Stadium I would expect Brighton to win this one by a couple of goals on the night.

With the changes expected in the home team, I would again keep stakes to a minimum though.


Leeds United v Newport County Pick: A chance to have a really good Cup run is not really what the Leeds United board will be interested in if it affects the way the side perform in the Championship. In previous years that would not be the case, but more and more we have seen the clubs outside the ‘elite’ of English Football decide to rotate squads for these early League Cup Rounds.

That should be the case for both Leeds United and Newport County in this Second Round tie, although the former will make more of those changes than the latter.

It may make Leeds United vulnerable to a surprise defeat, but the squad showed their depth in dismissing Port Vale in the First Round. With an unbeaten run to protect, Thomas Christiansen will be picking a team he believes is capable of winning this match and I think Leeds United may be able to do that.

All credit has to be given to Mike Flynn for engineering an incredible escape from relegation for Newport County at the end of last season. The confidence he has given the players has been evident this month and Newport County did stun Southend United in the First Round.

However this is a much different challenge for Newport County and the additional quality Leeds United have should eventually prevail. I expect Newport County to have their moments, but Leeds United may be able to take control in the second half as they did against Port Vale, and that could see them win this and cover the Asian Handicap.

I would keep stakes to a minimum simply because of the up and down nature of the League Cup, but Leeds United to win by a couple of goals on the night is my selection.


Cheltenham Town v West Ham United Pick: The television cameras will arrive at the LCI Rail Stadium on Wednesday in the hope that they may capture a real 'giant-killing' in the Second Round of the League Cup. The consecutive losses suffered by West Ham United in the Premier League may make them vulnerable, although Cheltenham Town are hardly in the best of form themselves.

However Cheltenham Town had won 4 in a row at home before the loss to Swansea City Under 21 last week and the side will be hoping to expose the unfamiliarity the likely West Ham United starting eleven will have with one another.

Making wholesale changes can be tough, but West Ham United have a deeper squad this season and a strong enough team should still take the field. Slaven Bilic will have read his name being linked with the sack at the London Stadium and he won't want to increase the pressure on himself by being knocked out of the League Cup by a League Two club.

Playing away from home can be difficult, but West Ham United have been one of the better away teams in the Premier League despite the losses suffered so far in August. Against a lower League team West Ham United should be able to produce the first win of the new season and ease some of the pressure on Bilic.

Cheltenham Town will cause problems for the Premier League club, but I think eventually West Ham United will have too much and I will have a small interest in them winning and covering the Asian Handicap.


Huddersfield Town v Rotherham United Pick: Four months ago Rotherham United and Huddersfield Town were playing in the same Division, but one was promoted and one relegated at the end of the 2016/17 season.

It is the promoted team, Huddersfield Town, who will get to host this Second Round League Cup tie and David Wagner has made it clear that he would like to have a Cup run or two this season. While I expect changes to the starting eleven, Wagner should have a decent team out on the field and one who should be confident of getting past Rotherham United.

The Millers have been really poor away from home at the beginning of this season to continue from where they left off last season. While Rotherham United can play with a little less pressure away at a Premier League club, I think the difference in quality will be telling and Huddersfield Town can make it three wins in a row.

The changes expected to David Wagner's starting line up is an obvious concern, so keep stakes to a minimum. However I do think Huddersfield Town can cover the Asian Handicap in their move through to the Third Round.


Dynamo Kiev v Maritimo PickThe goalless draw in Portugal was almost ideal for Dynamo Kiev who would have preferred to have earned an away goal, but who are in control of the tie in general. The expectation is that Dynamo Kiev will prove too strong in the Second Leg as they return home where they have been a strong team to open the new season.

The side have won all 5 games played here in all competitions and Dynamo Kiev have scored 17 goals in that time while scoring at least twice in all games and at least three times in their last 4. That goalscoring power is going to be a real concern for Maritimo who have have failed to win any of their last 10 away games in all competitions.

The bigger concern for the Maritimo fans has to be the fact they have scored 5 goals in those 10 games, while they have failed to find the net in 7 of them. That includes both away games played this season and I think Dynamo Kiev will end up having their chances to pull away for another relatively comfortable home win.

Experience is on the side of Dynamo Kiev who have played in the Group Stage of the Champions League in the last two seasons and who have played in one or the other Group Stage in 11 straight seasons. I fully expect them to make that 12 times in a row on Thursday too.

As Maritimo chase the game, I can see Dynamo Kiev proving effective enough on the counter attack to win this one with at least a two goal margin and earn their place in the Group Stage draw which will take place on Friday.


Zenit St Petersburg v Utrecht Pick: The 1-0 loss in the Netherlands makes this a slightly more awkward Second Leg for Zenit St Petersburg having failed to secure an away goal last week. That means Utrecht will feel than an away goal of their own will put them in a very strong position in the tie and leaves things nicely balanced.

Zenit St Petersburg at home are rightly a pretty strong favourite to win when you consider recent European games here as well as their form at home. The home loss in the Third Qualifying Round has to be seen as a blip considering Zenit St Petersburg had a healthy lead from the First Leg, and this is a club with a lot more experience than their visitors.

Not many would have picked Utrecht to get to this stage when paired with Lech Poznan in the Third Qualifying Round and even fewer would have suggested Utrecht as the team to Qualify for the Group Stage. However this is a team who have come together to make a strong start in the Dutch top flight and confidence isn’t an issue.

What is potentially a problem is the lack of recent European experience for the squad of players and dealign with the Second Leg in the right way. While they played well away from home for much of last season, Utrecht were beaten comfortably at PSV, Feyenoord and AZ Alkmaar and also conceded three times in a loss in Ajax.

Their hosts are comparable to those teams, including Zenit St Petersburg beating AZ Alkmaar 5-0 here in the Group Stage last season, and I think this might be a test too far for the Dutch club.

Zenit St Petersburg have to find the right balance as they can’t afford to give up an away goal, but I think their European ‘know how’ helps them achieve that. 3 of their 4 home Europa League wins last season came by at least two goals and I will back Zenit St Petersburg to cover the Asian Handicap in this one as they move into the Group Stage.


Athletic Bilbao v Panathinaikos Pick: At 2-0 up and with the game entering the final third, Panathinaikos looked to be in a very strong position to earn arguably their best win in recent European years. Unfortunately for them, the side were unable to cope with the mental pressure that brings and Panathinaikos were beaten 2-3 in Athens by Athletic Bilbao.

That result means it is going to take a special effort for Panathinaikos to turn things around on Thursday and I do think this is a task beyond their capabilities.

The problems come from trying to find the right balance between attack and defence as Panathinaikos need to score at least twice here. Send too many men forward and Athletic Bilbao should be able to pick them off on the counter, but wait too long and this tie may be over before Panathinaikos have really given it a shot to try and get back into things.

It is a difficult position for a manager to be in, especially against an Athletic Bilbao team who have played so well at home. They have won 5 straight home European games and Athletic Bilbao have scored 17 goals in that time which shows how dangerous they can be.

Athletic Bilbao don’t need to win to move into the Group Stage, but Spanish teams tend to play an attacking brand of football and I imagine Athletic Bilbao will do the same. There is every chance they can overwhelm Panathinaikos again, but this time without being 2-0 down before they get going.

I will look for Athletic Bilbao to win this one by a couple of goals and clear the Asian Handicap in the Second Leg.


Shkendija v Milan Pick: The tie is done as a competitive affair but Milan have every chance of making it 4 wins out of 4 in the Europa League against an overmatched Shkendija team.

There will be pride on the line for the home team having been beaten 6-0 in the San Siro last week, but the attention may already have shifted to the Macedonian domestic League where Shkendija may be favourites to win the title.

Shkendija have played well at home and should be backed by a passionate crowd, but on the field I do think they are overmatched. I wouldn't be surprised if Milan give some of their fringe players a chance, but they should still be defensively sound enough to win here and earn another clean sheet too.

That can be backed at odds against and I do think it is worthy of a small interest.

I wouldn't go in much harder than that simply because Milan will likely make changes and have such a lead that there could be some complacency in the performance. They should be too good, but restricting the investment is the smart way forward as Milan earn their place in the Group Stage draw on Friday.


Hajduk Split v Everton Pick: After winning the First Leg 2-0, Ronald Koeman will likely be extremely angry if Everton were to go out before the Europa League Group Stage draw. It will take a professional performance from Everton to make sure they don’t have any hiccups here against a tough Hajduk Split team who likely have a lot more to show than they did last week.

At home Hajduk Split have an 11 game unbeaten run to protect having won 8 of those, while they have won 5 home European games in a row. However Hajduk Split have been beaten in the Play Off Round of the Europa League in the last 3 seasons and they are just 1-1-1 in their home games in that stage of the competition.

The increased level of competition has proven too much for Hajduk Split and they are likely to encounter a well organised Everton team that will look for a killer away goal on the counter attack. There is some pace further up the pitch for Everton, but a lack of goals has been evident so far as they have only scored more than a single goal in 1 of 5 games in all competitions.

That did come against Hajduk Split, but Everton are unlikely to be pushing for a dominant win but instead will want to contain what the home team can do. Defensively Everton have looked sound even though their run of 4 consecutive clean sheets ended at the Etihad Stadium on Monday.

Unfortunately for Hajduk Split, they don’t have the same firepower Manchester City can call upon and I can see Everton being relatively comfortable on the night. Weathering the early storm will be key to take away the players confidence and tone down the supporters, but doing that should give Everton every chance to control the match and ease through.

It should be about being well organised for Everton and doing that should see them come through in a low-scoring game. I will be looking for two or fewer goals to be shared out between the teams in the Second Leg.

MY PICKS: Astana-Celtic Under 2.5 Goals @ 1.85 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Napoli @ 1.80 Bet365 (2 Units)
Sevilla - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.87 Bet Victor (2 Units)
CSKA Moscow @ 1.80 Ladbrokes (2 Units)
Liverpool - 0.75 Asian Handicap @ 1.84 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Accrington Stanley + 1 Asian Handicap @ 1.95 Bet365 (1 Unit)
Brighton - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.92 Bet365 (1 Unit)
Leeds United - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 2.01 Bet365 (1 Unit)
West Ham United - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.90 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
Huddersfield Town - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.83 Bet365 (1 Unit)
Dynamo Kiev - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.81 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Zenit St Petersburg - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.78 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Athletic Bilbao - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 2.01 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Milan Win to Nil @ 2.30 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
Hajduk Split-Everton Under 2.5 Goals @ 1.73 Bet Fred (2 Units)

August Update: 17-22, - 8.64 Units (64 Units Staked, - 13.5% Yield)

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