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Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Midweek Football Picks 2017 (October 31-November 2)

We are onto Match Day 4 of both the Champions League and Europa League Group Stage and this is the time of the season when we can start confirming participants in the Knock Out Rounds of those competitions.

For the English clubs it is really important to confirm places now and ensure some of the starters can earn their rest on Match Day 5 and Match Day 6 if possible. Ahead of what is a very busy December all the rest you can get is important, although all of those clubs will be keen to in their Group and thus earn what should be a relatively easier draw for the Last 16/Last 32 respectively.

We are almost through to the final international break of 2017 which begins on Monday 6th November as the next round of League games return on Saturday 18th November. It is going to be a particularly boring two weeks with international friendlies the main course of football although the final World Cup Qualifiers will also take place.

After that it won't be long to wait until the World Cup Finals draw is made and thankfully the international football can be put to the back burner until March as the meat of the season for the club sides takes place.

Celtic v Bayern Munich Pick: There was a real sense from Celtic fans that their team could get something from the Match Day 3 clash in Munich against Bayern, but the difference in quality between these teams was telling on the night.

Being back at Celtic Park for Match Day 4 might give the fans a little belief that the gap can be bridged as Celtic look to secure a win that would give them a chance of making the Last 16 in the Champions League. The absence of Robert Lewandowski has to only be further encouragement, but I am not sure Celtic are really good enough to compete with one of the favourites to win the Champions League.

Home advantage helps, but Celtic have lost 3 of the 4 home Group games played under Brendan Rodgers and all of those losses have come by at least two goals. Celtic have even failed to score in those defeats and I do wonder if they are capable of better when they host Bayern Munich.

Rodgers won’t change his philosophy and I think that plays into the hands of the big clubs they are facing in this Group. Paris Saint-Germain scored five at Celtic Park and Bayern Munich banged in three at home on Match Day 3 against a Celtic team that will look to attack and thus leave themselves a little more open.

Barcelona benefited with two comfortable wins over Celtic last season in the Group Stage and Borussia Monchengladbach won 0-2 here too. Even though Bayern Munich have not travelled so well as they have played at home and are likely to play a ‘false nine’ system, I do expect their quality can tell in this one.

The injuries to Lewandowski and Thomas Muller do raise some questions for Bayern Munich, but I think they can follow the likes of the teams I have mentioned and win at Celtic Park. With the home team unlikely to take a backwards step, Bayern Munich may find the space on the counter attack to win this one by a couple of goals on the night.

Manchester United v Benfica Pick: After beginning the season with goals flowing, the last month has been a little more pragmatic from Jose Mourinho as we have seen one goal be enough to beat Benfica and Tottenham Hotspur.

The manager would likely take that result again and then have a chance to almost put a pin in the Champions League until February with top spot almost secured too. That will be the aim for Manchester United as they look to make it four wins from four in the Group and the form at Old Trafford has been much more convincing to suggest that is the only realistic outcome of this Match Day 4 encounter.

Some of the belief has to have filtered away from the Benfica squad having lost all three Group games and two of those having come at the Stadium of Light. While recent form has been better, Benfica haven’t faced too many teams as strong as Manchester United who were clearly the better team in Lisbon two weeks ago.

I expect Manchester United to have the majority of play in this one in the final third and the fact they have a few days to prepare for the Chelsea game at the weekend should mean Mourinho picks a strong team. Romelu Lukaku will be looking to get back to scoring form having not found the net over the last month, but he does have a couple of assists which will keep Mourinho happy.

The young Benfica goalkeeper looked pretty nervous when he played in the reverse fixture two weeks ago and Manchester United will look to expose that again.

Benfica have not travelled well in the Champions League in the last twelve months with 4 losses from their last 6 and I think they will struggle here. With Manchester United holding a very strong recent record at Old Trafford, I will look for the home team to secure a comfortable win and cover the Asian Handicap.

Roma v Chelsea Pick: This could be a pivotal game for both Chelsea and Roma in this Champions League Group as the winner would feel in a very strong position to move through to the Last 16, while the losing team will begin to worry about Atletico Madrid.

It does feel more important to Roma than Chelsea with the points the way they are in the Group, but the busy December in England will mean Antonio Conte is also desperate to see his side confirm their Last 16 spot before the final round of games.

A win in Rome will give Chelsea every chance of not only going through, but winning this Group on Match Day 5 when they visit Qarabag. However this is going to be a test for Chelsea even though their best results have come away from home so far in the 2017/18 season.

Chelsea will feel they can score goals here, but they have to defend better than they did at Stamford Bridge in the 3-3 draw with Roma. On the other hand I am not sure Roma can play as well as they did two weeks ago, especially when you note the poor home record in the Champions League.

However Roma have only been beaten in 1 of their last 6 home European ties and that has to be respected. They were perhaps a little fortunate to avoid defeat to Atletico Madrid on Match Day 1 of the Group Stage though and I think Chelsea have shown they can produce big away performances.

The layers are finding it hard to separate the teams, but a team who won in Atletico Madrid are clearly capable of winning here in Rome. It won’t be easy for Chelsea, but I think Roma may be a touch overrated after their performance at Stamford Bridge and I am not expecting Chelsea to defend as poorly as they did that day.

Backing Chelsea on the Asian Handicap, which is essentially a ‘draw no bet’ option, looks the way to go with this one.

Besiktas v Monaco Pick: This looked a wide open Group when it was drawn out as none of the four teams looked to be dominant, but Besiktas might be changing the mind having won all three games so far. It would need a lot of things going against the Turkish Champions to prevent them earning a spot in the Last 16 now, but the focus will be on trying to win the Group as they look to do the double over Monaco.

While Monaco are still looking to be the greatest threat to Paris Saint-Germain domestically, the players they have lost in the summer transfer window have hurt the club. It is no surprise that they have taken a step back, but even that quality team they had last season was one that struggled on their travels.

This Monaco team have earned a result in Leipzig in the Group, but they have only won 1 of their last 6 away Champions League games and have lost half of those. They are now travelling to a Besiktas team who have been much stronger at home historically and who beat the likes of Lyon and Olympiacos over the last few months before also beating Leipzig here in the Group.

Besiktas definitely look to be playing with more confidence than Monaco and can almost secure a top spot finish with a victory on Wednesday. At odds against I think they can be backed to extend their winning run in the section.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Feyenoord Pick: With Napoli and Manchester City playing the second of their double header against one another, Shakhtar Donetsk have to take advantage by making sure they earn maximum points against Feyenoord. They have done the hard work by winning in Rotterdam on Match Day 3, although Feyenoord could be dangerous as they have almost nothing to lose and have to find a way to earn a win to stay alive.

That can make players loosen up enough to cause an upset, but Feyenoord have been in poor recent form with losses in 6 of their last 11 in all competitions. They have looked to be outclassed in this Champions League Group, while confidence has to have been shattered with poor performances both in the Netherlands and in Europe.

The home defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk would have been a huge blow to Feyenoord's chances of making it through to the Last 16 and maybe even to get into the Europa League. Now they have to find a way to win here against a team who have won 6 of their last 7 home European ties and generally been playing well at home as Shakhtar Donetsk recently saw their 6 game home winning run snapped.

Anything other than a home win here would be a surprise with the confidence the two teams will enter Match Day 4. Feyenoord were only narrowly beaten at home by Shakhtar Donetsk, but I think that defeat might have ended any belief this team has of making it through to the Knock Out Rounds, and Feyenoord were beaten easily in their other two games against Manchester City and Napoli.

You would worry about Feyenoord if they fall behind in this one and whether they would have much fight back, and I will back Shakhtar Donetsk to win by a couple of goals at the least.

Sevilla v Spartak Moscow Pick: The 5-1 mauling Sevilla suffered at the hands of Spartak Moscow in the Russian capital has to have been one that the players would have been looking to earn a measure of revenge from ever since it happened. It has opened up this Group and put Sevilla in a difficult position, although back to back home games against Spartak Moscow and Liverpool means their destiny is in their own hands.

The result in Russia was a real surprise when you consider the form Spartak Moscow had been in, but they have been an improving team and the confidence has been restored.

Doing the same on their travels is a big test for them though and I am not sure they will be able to compete with Sevilla as effectively as they did at home. Sevilla are a much stronger team at home than they are on their travels and this is a team that can score goals in front of their own fans which should put the pressure on Spartak Moscow.

It won't be easy for Sevilla, but I do think they will create the majority of the chances and they will be able to earn the three points available on Wednesday. Spartak Moscow earned a 1-1 draw in Maribor, but the latter have not looked good since then and I will back Sevilla to find their way to a win by a couple of goals on the night.

Napoli v Manchester City Pick: Both Napoli and Manchester City have made very strong starts to their domestic League form and winning the title in Italy and England respectively has to be the main aim for both clubs. However Pep Guardiola has been brought into Manchester City to take them forward in the Champions League and they are definitely putting more stock into this competition than Napoli seemingly are.

In saying that, I fully expect Napoli to start a strong team like they did at the Etihad Stadium when they were perhaps a little unlucky not to get something out of the game. That has left Napoli in a difficult spot in the Group and they almost have to win this one to stay in touch with the two leading teams or risk having to settle for a place in the Europa League.

Napoli have been very good in Italy and they showed they can create opportunities against Manchester City when almost coming back from 2-0 down two weeks ago. They should be able to do the same in front of their own fans, although the concern will always be leaving space for Manchester City to exploit on the counter attack.

Pep Guardiola will expect his side to get forward and create chances and that has been a feature of Manchester City games in recent Champions League away games. Manchester City have played 6 away Champions League games under the Spaniard and in 5 of those there have been at least four goals shared out.

Napoli home games in this competition have been no less exciting as 4 of the last 6 have ended with at least four goals shared out. With the way the two teams gelled two weeks ago I am going back to the market of looking for at least four goals shared out which was barely missed when they played in Manchester.

I can't see either team really looking to take a backward step and the situation means Napoli have to get forward and score goals to win the game. Manchester City don't really play anything but attacking football under Guardiola and I will look for goals in this one.

Tottenham Hotspur v Real Madrid Pick: There is every chance that both of these teams are already in a position to make it through to the Last 16 of the Champions League, but the winner of this one will likely win the Group and earn the 'easier' of the ties in the Second Round.

That should make the game a competitive one with more attacking football like we saw when these two teams met in the Spanish capital two weeks ago. There were plenty of chances for both teams to win on that day and I expect the Wembley Stadium dimensions to leave space for both Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid in this one too.

Harry Kane could be available for the home team and that is clearly a big boost for them if they do want to upset Real Madrid. Kane provides an attacking impetus for Spurs, but Real Madrid showed they can create chances of their own and only an inspired Hugo Lloris prevented more goals two weeks ago.

Tottenham Hotspur's last two games at Wembley in the Champions League have featured at least four goals shared out. Also note 4 of the last 7 Real Madrid away games in the Champions League have seen that number reached and I will back there being at least four goals in this one.

Apollon v Atalanta PickI was immediately surprised by the prices for this game as Atalanta are not only favoured to win in Cyprus, but favoured at odds on to do that. That is surprising when you think Atalanta have yet to win away from home this season, while Apollon are unbeaten in 8 home games in European competition including a 1-1 draw with Lyon earlier in the Group.

Atalanta are a team who have struggled for clean sheets away from home and one who don't need to win this game if they are going to move through to the Last 32. Combining those two factors it is hard to see Atalanta as an odds on favourite here let alone one who are expected to win by a wide margin.

Both teams to score is a decent way to get involved in this one with the way Atalanta games have gone this season and Apollon have seen 4 of their last 6 at home also finish with both teams scoring. However I am more intrigued by Apollon having gone 27 games unbeaten in all competitions and already earning a result against Lyon here in the Europa League.

Having the start on the Asian Handicap will mean half the stake is returned if Atalanta win by a single goal margin. I do think Apollon can make a game of this one and they have every chance of avoiding the loss and have to be worth backing to do that against an opponent who have yet to win away from home and likely would accept a point already.

Lyon v Everton Pick: It has become clear that the Europa League is not the priority for Everton as it may have been if their season hadn't unravelled in the fashion it has over the first three months of the 2017/18 campaign. The Premier League form has been really poor and Everton are desperate to get things right domestically which means players will be rested for the game against Watford to come on Sunday.

That is the decision made by David Unsworth despite Everton being on the brink of exiting the Europa League. A win would actually reignite their bid to get through to the Last 16, but I am not sure that belief is there after the 1-2 defeat to Lyon at Goodison Park two weeks ago.

With the players being rested and now facing a Lyon side who have been playing with real confidence, it is difficult to see how Everton can prevent a defeat here. Lyon had won 4 in a row in European competition at home before the 1-1 draw with Atalanta, but they are still in a strong position in the Group and will be expected to make it through to the Last 32 having secured that win at Everton.

Wins over Monaco and Metz have kept the confidence going for Lyon and I think they will prove to be too good for Everton on the day. Everton have been losing too many games of late to think they will turn it around here and I will back Lyon to cover the Asian Handicap in a comfortable home win to move to the brink of making it through to the Last 32.

Maccabi Tel Aviv v Astana Pick: Match Day 4 of the Group Stage of either the Champions League and Europa League competitions is pivotal as we start to see which teams have made it through to the Knock Out Rounds and which teams are now exiting European Football.

That is where Maccabi Tel Aviv find themselves as a loss would likely mean they are finished with the Europa League, but on the other hand a win could really get them on a roll in the Group. With 2 of their remaining 3 Group games coming at home, Maccabi Tel Aviv will feel they can get back into contention as they are only 4 points behind the leaders, but that won't be easy against Astana.

First off they have to remove the memories of the 4-0 loss in Kazakhstan from their mind from two weeks ago. Playing at home should make a big difference for Maccabi Tel Aviv considering how poorly Astana have travelled in European competition although I do imagine this will be a tight game and with little between them.

It does make picking a winner a little more haphazard, but I do think Maccabi Tel Aviv can make home form count. Astana have lost 6 of their last 7 away games in European competition and Maccabi Tel Aviv are unbeaten in 7 home games in the Europa League since blowing a 3-0 lead over Zenit St Petersburg in a 3-4 defeat in the Group Stage last season.

At odds against the Israeli team can be backed, although I would keep stakes to a minimum in this one.

Arsenal v Red Star Belgrade Pick: There shouldn't be any surprise that Arsenal are going to be making a host of changes to their side for this one considering they have the daunting task of facing Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. With the Europa League Group firmly in hand, Arsene Wenger will send out his Cup side which has performed well so far this season.

I don't think anyone will be buying the suggestion that the Cup team are giving the first team as much difficulty in training as Wenger is suggesting, but it is good enough at this stage of the Europa League. Bigger tests will come for Arsenal after Christmas when they may have to start considering this competition as the best route into the Champions League, but Wenger won't give up on the Premier League.

Arsenal should still continue to be too good for the teams they are facing in this Group though and the layers aren't giving anything away on The Gunners making it four out of four wins on Thursday. They should be too good for Red Star Belgrade having won in Serbia, but that was a tight game and this one might be the same.

As well as Arsenal have done to progress through the Europa League and League Cup, this will be the fourth game at the Emirates Stadium and they have only won 1 of the previous 3 by more than a single goal margin. The changed line up needed extra time to beat Norwich City in the League Cup Fourth Round and they needed a come from behind performance to knock off FC Koln in the Europa League.

In that game they had a stronger team than they are likely to begin this one with and I think Red Star Belgrade are worth a small interest with the start on the Asian Handicap. Red Star have won at Sparta Prague and FC Koln and lost narrowly at Krasnodar which shows they can be competitive and backing them to at least keep this tight for much of the evening has to be worth a poke.

Athletic Bilbao v Ostersunds Pick: Time is running out for Athletic Bilbao if they want to make it through to the Last 32 of the Europa League and that means they have to win this game on Match Day 4. They came into the Group Stage as the favourites to progress, but Athletic Bilbao have only earned 2 points which means they are 4 points behind 2nd placed Zorya.

Things will be looking up for Athletic Bilbao if they can win this game against Ostersunds and close on the Swedish side who lead the Group. Two weeks ago Bilbao managed to draw 2-2 away from home and generally they have been stronger at home.

Ostersunds are overachieving significantly in their first season in European Football, and they have won 2 of 4 away games in the Europa League. However they were beaten comfortably at PAOK and I think they may struggle to stay with Athletic Bilbao in this one.

The visitors have to be respected and look capable of making the Last 32, but I think they will have to wait at least three weeks to have a chance to secure their passage through. I will be looking for Athletic Bilbao to win this one and cover the Asian Handicap on the night.

Lazio v Nice Pick: These two teams come into this fixture in contrasting form and Lazio should be able to continue their run to earn their place in the Last 32 of the Europa League.

While Lazio have put a winning run together, Nice have been on a negative spiral and it will be difficult for them to earn a result here.

Lazio have been scoring goals for fun at home and they should be ready to beat Nice for a second time in two weeks. Now they host a team who have not scored in their last couple of away games while being beaten fairly comfortably at Paris Saint-Germain and Montpellier.

A lack of goals is not what you want when facing this Lazio team who have been so strong at home and I will back the Italian club to secure their place as Group winners by beating Nice by a couple of goals on the night.

Viktoria Plzen v Lugano Pick: Outside of Steaua Bucharest, this is a Group where any of three teams can make it through to the Last 32 of the Europa League which makes this a big game for both Viktoria Plzen and Lugano.

It was Lugano who won on Match Day 3 and another win in the Czech Republic would put them in a very strong position in the Group. It would also likely be too much for Viktoria Plzen to overcome and that puts some real pressure on the home team to find a result.

However they should be confident of doing that at home where they have won 3 of their last 4 European ties and especially with the experience that Viktoria Plzen have compared to Lugano. As strong a result as Lugano did earn against Viktoria Plzen two weeks ago, they are not as strong on their travels and have lost heavily at Young Boys and Zurich already.

Viktoria Plzen might have to deal with some of the tension of knowing what a defeat would mean for them, but they have won 8 in a row at home in all competitions. That includes a couple of convincing wins in the Europa League and I will back them at odds against to record another here.

MY PICKS: Bayern Munich - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.96 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Manchester United - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 2.10 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Chelsea 0 Asian Handicap @ 2.00 Bet365 (2 Units)
Besiktas @ 2.30 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
Shakhtar Donetsk - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 2.04 Bet365 (2 Units)
Sevilla - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.07 Bet365 (2 Units)
Napoli-Manchester City Over 3.5 Goals @ 2.30 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Tottenham Hotspur-Real Madrid Over 3.5 Goals @ 2.40 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
Apollon + 0.75 Asian Handicap @ 2.05 Bet365 (2 Units)
Lyon - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 2.10 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Maccabi Tel Aviv @ 2.30 Bet365 (1 Unit)
Red Star Belgrade + 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.78 Bet Victor (1 Unit)
Athletic Bilbao - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.91 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Lazio - 1 Asian Handicap @ 1.83 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Viktoria Plzen - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.02 Bet365 (2 Units)

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