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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Midweek Football Picks 2017 (September 12-14)

September is considered a very busy month for the European domestic Leagues as it couples up with Cup and European action.

This week we have the first round of Champions League and Europa League games and Match Day 2 will be played later this month. It makes for an interesting time for the fans and the players with games coming thick and fast before the next international break which takes place over the first couple of weeks of October.

The English clubs have to be happy with the Champions League draws they have been given, although the challenge is for the likes of Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur who have the toughest assignments of the five English clubs involved.

Chelsea will feel they are good enough to get the better of Roma, but finishing above Atletico Madrid won't be easy with the experience the latter have in this competition. The Diego Costa situation makes those two matches even more tense than simply about the Group Winner, but the key for Antonio Conte's men is working their way through to the Last 16 and I do think they will be in a position to do that.

For Tottenham Hotspur the difficulty of facing Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the Group is clear, but the latter are perhaps not as strong as they have been in recent years. Finishing above the European Champions would be a huge achievement and one that I am not sure Tottenham Hotspur are capable of, but the opening game with Borussia Dortmund at Wembley Stadium will set the tone for Spurs for the rest of the competition.

Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool were all in Pots 2 or 3 in the draw and all have been handed very winnable Groups. The biggest threats for the teams come from Benfica, Napoli and Sevilla respectively, but the rest of the Group is made up of teams that the English clubs should get the better of and I would expect all three to move into the Last 16 and all perhaps winning the Group.

If I am picking the Last 16 before the Group Stage begins, I would expect these 16 sides to make up the Second Round: Manchester United, Benfica, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid, Roma, Barcelona, Juventus, Liverpool, Sevilla, Manchester City, Napoli, Leipzig, Porto, Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur.

Borussia Dortmund and Monaco will have something to say about the last couple of Groups but that is my feeling right now.

Arsenal and Everton will also begin their Europa League campaigns this week and it is a competition that perhaps takes on more importance after seeing how Manchester United performed last season. Out of the two teams, I would expect Everton to put in more effort in that competition from the opening game, but I would not be surprised if Arsenal begin to give it more priority if they continue to play inconsistent football in the Premier League.

It may not be the case this week with a big game at Stamford Bridge to come on Sunday, but only stubbornness and a belief that he is untouchable at the Emirates Stadium would see Arsene Wenger completely ignore the Europa League as he has suggested he will.

Barcelona v Juventus Pick: There have been plenty of big name changes at both Barcelona and Juventus since they met in the Champions League Quarter Final in April with Neymar leaving the Spanish club and Leonardo Bonucci moving on from the Italian club.

With Georgio Chiellini also missing this Juventus defence may not be as strong as the one that came here and earned a goalless draw in April. They didn't concede a goal in two games against Barcelona, but I do have to say that Juventus did ride their luck at times in those games.

Barcelona themselves must wonder how they didn't take at least a couple of the glorious chances they created over the two Legs. The side may not be as good without Neymar, but Barcelona still have enough attacking talent to create chances against a new look defence that doesn't have the same kind of experience as the one they faced a few months ago.

There is a transition going on at Barcelona which may mean they are not as strong as they can be, but they have been playing well enough domestically to exploit a Juventus defence that have been conceding goals. In this Group game I would expect Barcelona to take their opportunities better than they did in the Quarter Final and I think they win this opening Champions League fixture.

Juventus are a good team in their own right, but they are also getting used to the new faces that have arrived at the club and missing two of the three centre halves that were so important to them last season is a big blow. It is hard to write off a team as good as Juventus and one that has as much experience as they do in the Champions League, but I like Barcelona here.

I will look for Barcelona to show some composure in front of goal on their way to covering the Asian Handicap.

Benfica v CSKA Moscow Pick: Winning the Champions League looks a long way away for a team from Portugal these days with the improvement some of the other clubs in Europe have been able to make. However teams from Portugal are certainly good enough to get into the Last 16 of the Champions League at the very least, and the Champions Benfica have headed into the Group Stage from Pot 1 which has given them every chance to qualify for the Second Round.

The games with Manchester United will be the ones that the fans focus on, but the players and management have to be looking at Basel and CSKA Moscow as teams they should be beating and finishing above in the section. Opening up with CSKA Moscow at home gives Benfica the perfect chance to get their Champions League run started with a bang and I do expect them to be too strong.

5 wins from 6 games domestically have given Benfica the confidence to take into the Champions League but they have only won 3 of their last 7 at home in this competition. However I can excuse 3 of those failures to win which came against Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich and Napoli and Benfica have lost only 2 of their last 11 at home in the Champions League.

CSKA Moscow have won 10 of 14 games in the new season too which has seen them come through a couple of Champions League Qualifiers before entering the Group Stage. However they are not a strong Champions League team and CSKA Moscow have struggled when they have played away from home.

They have won at AEK Athens and Young Boys in the Qualifiers but CSKA Moscow have now lost 10 of their last 12 away Champions League games in the Group Stage. A few of those losses have been heavy defeats too and CSKA Moscow conceded at least twice in each of their 3 Group away games last season including heavy losses at Monaco and Tottenham Hotspur.

I do think they will struggle in the away games at Benfica and Manchester United in this Group and that will begin on Tuesday. Last season Benfica did have a let down in their opening game when drawing 1-1 at home with Besiktas, but I think the Turkish club are better than CSKA Moscow and this time around the Portuguese Champions can secure a victory on the night.

Both away losses in the Champions League for CSKA Moscow last season came by a couple of goals on the night and I will look for Benfica to do that here.

Chelsea v Qarabag PickA return to European Football will be most welcome at Stamford Bridge, but there will be some work for Chelsea to do if they are going to make it through to the Last 16 of the Champions League. Both Atletico Madrid and Roma are dangerous sides to face, but Chelsea open up with Qarabag at home and anything less than a win would be a huge upset.

The question really is how well will Chelsea do on the day against a Qarabag side that haven't really faced this level of competition too often. You don't want to underestimate Qarabag, and the rotation that has been indicated by Antonio Conte does make it a little more unclear as to how well Chelsea can gel together, but I do think Chelsea will be too strong on the day.

In the last two Champions League Groups that Chelsea have played, they have beaten the weakest team in the Group by three or more goals. That gives me encouragement that they can cover this Asian Handicap on Tuesday even if Conte does make a number of changes to his first team.

Qarabag were beaten 5-1 at Fiorentina and 3-0 at Slovan Liberec in the Group Stage of the Europa League last season and they may just struggle to contain Chelsea here.

Even if there are changes to the Chelsea starting line up, there is enough quality in the squad to dominate a fixture like this one. It feels like Chelsea will have the majority of the chances and they are a team that have been very strong at Stamford Bridge under Antonio Conte with plenty of goals scored in that that.

I think Chelsea will do enough to cover the Asian Handicap in this one.

Manchester United v Basel Pick: The Champions League anthem being played at Old Trafford is going to be a big boost for the Manchester United fans, but the players will feel like this is a level on which they have belonged all along. Winning the Europa League showed Manchester United they deserve to be amongst the best names in European Football although they won't be meeting many of those in this Group.

Opening up against Basel at Old Trafford gives Manchester United every chance of earning three points to get this Group underway.

However no one should underestimate what this Group could mean as both Basel and Benfica Qualified for the Last 16 while knocking Manchester United into the Europa League Last 32 when they were all in the same Group in the 2011/12 season.

Manchester United failed to beat Basel at home in that Group and that means both previous fixtures between them at Old Trafford have ended in draws. This current Basel team may not be as good as those that previously visited Old Trafford, especially as they have lost 4 of their last 5 away games in European competition.

They were beaten comfortably at Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League Group Stage last season, while Basel were also dismissed easily at Sevilla in the Europa League Knock Out Rounds the season before.

Backing Manchester United to win with a clean sheet would have been more appealing if they didn't have both Phil Jones and Eric Bailly suspended, so instead I will focus on the firepower the home team clearly have. Basel have conceded at least twice in 3 of their last 4 away European games and this Manchester United team have plenty of pace and quality in the final third that should give them the edge in this one.

It won't be easy to cover the Asian Handicap, but I think Manchester United can do that on Tuesday. Basel lost 3-0 at both Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain over the last eighteen months, and also lost 2-0 at Arsenal in that time. I will look for Manchester United to match the margin that Sevilla and PSG earned and I will back them to cover the Asian Handicap on Match Day 1 of the Champions League Group Stage.

Liverpool v Sevilla Pick: When you look at this Champions League Group, Liverpool and Sevilla look to be the teams at the head of the queue to make it through to the Last 16. Winning the Group could come down to the head to head between the two clubs and that makes this opening fixture very important to both.

For Jurgen Klopp it is a chance to bounce back from the really poor 5-0 loss at Manchester City on Saturday and try and regain some momentum which was lost at the Etihad Stadium. Liverpool had made a really positive start to the season before that defeat, but they could have their full complement of players ready for this one with Philippe Coutinho also expected back.

Coutinho may have to settle for a place on the bench for this fixture before starting at the weekend, but it does make Liverpool a threat to many clubs around Europe especially at Anfield. The defensive issues which were exposed by Manchester City are still at the forefront of the concern for this team, but it does have to be said that this Sevilla team are not as strong as the ones they have fielded in recent years.

There is still some talent there, but Sevilla are a team that has struggled away from home in Europe with better players. The 2-0 loss at Leicester City in the Last 16 of the Champions League was a real blow to Sevilla's confidence, and wins in Getafe and Istanbul Basaksehir is not enough to have prepared them for this game.

At the end of last season Sevilla lost 5 of 7 away games in all competitions and I think they may struggle to contain Liverpool in this one. Any team that visits Anfield has to be prepared to ride out the storm they will face early in the game, but I think that may be difficult for Sevilla with the Liverpool players having something to prove after the loss at Manchester City.

I think Liverpool will win this one and I think they may win with a margin to cover the Asian Handicap on Wednesday.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Napoli Pick: In a Group that contains Manchester City and Feyenoord, all four teams will know they can't afford too many poor performances if they want to move through to the Last 16 of the Champions League. The two leading contenders look to be Manchester City and Napoli and the Italian club look like one of the stronger teams in the competition.

They have to be one of the more exciting teams to watch at the moment with Napoli looking very strong in the final third and decent at the back which gives them very good balance. They have shown over the last several months that Napoli could be a real threat to win Serie A back home and also be one of the better teams in the Champions League.

Winning games has become common for Napoli who are also unbeaten in 17 in all competitions. Playing away from home has not been a problem as Napoli have recorded wins in 9 of their last 10 on their travels including the last 6 in a row and goals have not been a problem for them.

Napoli are facing a quality team in Shakhtar Donetsk who are clearly at their most dangerous when they are playing at home. Shakhtar Donetsk have only lost 1 in 10 home European games and had been unbeaten in 9, winning 5 in a row, before the 0-2 defeat to Celta Vigo.

However I do think Shakhtar Donetsk have slipped from the level they once had and they have won just 2 of their last 8 home Champions League games. This is a level that they have not faced regularly and Shakhtar Donetsk have lost their last couple of home games against Dynamo Kiev which is about as close to the quality they will see in the Champions League.

It may also be telling that Napoli won at Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League Group Stage last season and I think they can back up that win in the Ukraine this time around. It won't be easy, but Napoli are so good going forward that I think they will have too much for Shakhtar Donetsk in the final third.

Expect goals, but Napoli to have the edge and I will back them to win here.

Dynamo Kiev v Skenderbeu Korce PickThe Europa League may not be seen in the same light in England as it is in many other European countries, but that does not mean this is a competition that should be disregarded. The chance to enter the Champions League by winning the Europa League is a huge carrot at the end of a long competition, while teams like Dynamo Kiev have to be thinking they can go deep into a European competition at this level.

I do think they can make hay in this Group and Dynamo Kiev opening up against the weakest team in the section looks a good chance to put a statement win together.

They should be too good for Albanian side Skenderbeu Korce who have worked some magic to come through four Rounds of Qualifiers to make the Group Stage. The last time they were in the Europa League Group Stage, Skenderbeu Korce were beaten heavily in all three away games and I think that could be the problem for them in this Group.

Both teams are in good form domestically, but the level Dynamo Kiev deal with is much greater than Skenderbeu Korce's level. Dynamo Kiev have won three in a row at home in European competition and all by at least two goal margins.

While they need to win by at least three to cover the Asian Handicap, I think the worst case is Dynamo Kiev earn a push. They should be strong enough to win easily on the day and I will back Dynamo Kiev to do that.

Hoffenheim v Braga Pick: The lack of European experience may have cost Hoffenheim their place in the Champions League Group Stage when they were beaten 6-3 by Liverpool on aggregate. However they have bounced back from that disappointment back home and that has culminated in a 2-0 win over Bayern Munich here over the weekend.

There was plenty to like about the way Hoffenheim played against Liverpool, especially in the home Leg, and the early penalty miss put them on the back foot. That was the key to the First Leg and Hoffenheim will have learned plenty about themselves in the two matches with Liverpool which should aid them when they enter the Europa League Group Stage.

Since the loss to Liverpool, Hoffenheim have won back to back home games and they have now won 10 of their last 12 here. That should give them the confidence to see off Braga even if the Portuguese side have plenty more experience of playing in European Football than Hoffenheim.

However Brage have lost 5 of their last 9 away games in all competitions and saw their 3 game winning run on their travels come to an end in a 2-0 loss at Vitoria Setubal at the weekend. Braga have proven to be a tougher nut to crack in the Europa League in recent years, and they are unbeaten in 4 away games in this competition.

That means Braga deserve some respect, but Hoffenheim play with plenty of attacking intent at home and I think they will be too strong for their visitors on Thursday.

Villarreal v Astana Pick: The home form of Villarreal combined with the away form of Astana in European competitions should mean the Spanish side are heavily favoured to win the opening game in this Europa League Group.

Most will be expecting Villarreal to be too strong with the quality they have in the squad and the Europa League has been an important competition for Spanish clubs in recent years. Sevilla have won this competition three times in a row before Celta Vigo reached the Semi Final last season and only narrowly were beaten by Manchester United.

Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid are two other Finalists in recent years and Villarreal themselves for Semi Finalists two seasons ago.

At home Villarreal have been very strong in Europa League competition with 9 wins from their last 11 here and they should be too good for an Astana team who were thumped by Celtic in the Champions League Qualifiers. That means Astana have lost 5 of their last 6 away games in European competition including in all 3 in the Europa League Group Stage last season.

3 of those 5 losses have come by at least a three goal margin and Villarreal did hammer Astana when these clubs met in the 2014/15 Europa League Qualifiers. It might not be the same margin as the 4-0 result back then, but I do think Villarreal will prove too good and they can cover the Asian Handicap in this one.

Arsenal v Koln Pick: The biggest question for Arsenal fans is how serious Arsene Wenger is going to take the Europa League this season having previously dismissed the competition as one that should not be offering a Champions League place to the winner. Wenger may have to change his mind about that as the season progresses if Arsenal fail to find the consistency in the Premier League to chase a top four spot, but it does make it hard to predict the kind of teams he will pick in the Group Stage.

That is especially the case in this opening game with a big match against Chelsea just days away. There is still enough depth in the squad to expect a decent Arsenal line up to begin this fixture, but it will be a changed starting eleven to the one that beat Bournemouth comfortably on Saturday.

In saying that, I still think Arsenal will be good enough to beat Koln who have made a really poor start to their domestic campaign having lost all 3 League games. They have also been beaten in 7 of their last 11 away games in all competitions going back to last season and the lack of experience in the squad when it comes to European competition has to go against them.

Some may want to wait for the team news, but I think an Arsenal starting eleven that will likely include Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez should still be powerful enough going forward to win this fixture. Defensively Arsenal can be vulnerable, but I am not sure Koln will be able to take full advantage and I will back the English side to win this and cover the Asian Handicap on the day.

Hapoel Be'er Sheva v Lugano Pick: This Europa League Group looks like an open one, but Hapoel Be'er Sheva have to make full use of their home games if they are going to match their run to the Last 32 of the Europa League from last season. The side have much more experience than Lugano have and I do think they can make that count here.

Playing at home has proven to be a joy for Hapoel Be'er Sheva in European competition with 4 wins from their last 5 home European ties. That includes winning all 3 in the Champions League Qualifiers at home this season and Hapoel Be'er Sheva have to feel they can get off to a winning start in the Group.

It won't be easy against Lugano who have had some really positive away results over the last year. They have won in Young Boys, although lost at the same venue this past weekend, and Lugano have also won at Grasshoppers and drawn at Basel which has to be respected.

The lack of European experience could prove to be the difference in their chances of coming out of the Group compared with the three former Champions League teams they are facing. Lugano begin their campaign at a tough away venue and I think that may show up here as I look for Hapoel Be'er Sheva to win this one.

Hapoel Be'er Sheva don't win a lot of their home European games by more than a single goal margin, but I will look for them to do that here and cover the Asian Handicap.

Marseille v Konyaspor Pick: The last couple of results for Marseille have been really terrible considering the goals they have set for the season- there is one thing in losing a game of football, but losing 6-1 at Monaco and 1-3 to Rennes are hugely disappointing results.

Generally Marseille have been better at home and I think they can bounce back from their defeat to Rennes at the weekend.

Before that result they had won 6 of 7 at home in all competitions and that includes winning both Europa League games here in the Qualifiers. Both of those wins saw Marseille winning by a least a two goal margin and they scored at least three goals in each game as they moved into the Group Stage.

They are facing a Konyaspor side who experienced the Group Stage of the Europa League but who did struggle at this level twelve months ago. A poor start domestically will have knocked some confidence from Konyaspor's players ahead of this one and they were beaten in all 3 away Group games in the Europa League by at least a couple of goals each time.

That looks the most likely outcome in this opening Group match this time around too. While neither team is in great form, Marseille have tended to be stronger at home and I think they can record a relatively comfortable win in this one against a Konyaspor team who struggled away from home in the Group last season.

MY PICKS: Barcelona - 1 Asian Handicap @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Benfica - 0.75 Asian Handicap @ 1.85 Bet365 (2 Units)
Chelsea - 2 Asian Handicap @ 1.87 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Manchester United - 1.75 Asian Handicap @ 2.00 Bet365 (2 Units)
Liverpool - 0.75 Asian Handicap @ 1.86 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Napoli @ 2.20 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Dynamo Kiev - 2 Asian Handicap @ 1.75 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Hoffenheim - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.73 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Villarreal - 1.75 Asian Handicap @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Arsenal - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.91 Bet365 (2 Units)
Hapoel Be'er Sheva - 1 Asian Handicap @ 1.98 Bet365 (2 Units)
Marseille - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.82 Bet365 (2 Units)

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