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Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Midweek Football Picks 2018 (March 6-8)

The Champions League Quarter Final line up will begin to take shape by the end of Wednesday evening with half of the last eight teams confirming their places in the next Round of the competition.

This week is also an important one in the Europa League with the Last 16 First Legs due to be played on Thursday.

The focus on Tuesday will likely be on the big game in Paris where PSG take on Real Madrid, before Juventus head to Wembley Stadium to take on a Tottenham Hotspur team who have the narrow advantage from the First Leg of their Second Round tie.

Liverpool v Porto Pick: The Champions League saw Paris Saint-Germain blow a huge Second Round lead in their defeat to Barcelona twelve months ago, but I would argue that Porto overturning their 0-5 home loss to Liverpool from the First Leg would be an even bigger upset.

Let’s cut to the chase- that isn’t happening.

However the Second Leg may give Porto a chance to at least redeem themselves with a much better performance as they could be facing a heavily rotated Liverpool team. Jurgen Klopp has not always done that, but Liverpool are virtually through to the Quarter Final and have a huge game at Manchester United on Saturday so risking key players would be a surprise.

There will be some talent available to Liverpool who are on the fringes of the first team, while Klopp may use some of the more consistent starters to keep momentum going.

Even then it should give Porto a chance to show they are better than they were in the First Leg when they began decent enough before falling it apart.

Porto have scored in their 3 away Group games in the Champions League and they will feel they can play a part.

They will likely be better defensively than they were in the First Leg, but Liverpool are very strong at home and have been scoring for fun in recent games at Anfield. Even a changed Liverpool team should be able to cause problems for Porto and goals were not in short supply in the First Leg of the Champions League Last 16 ties played last month.

This Second Leg could follow suit with both teams likely to try and play some attacking football so looking for four or more goals is the pick. Porto should be better going forward against a Liverpool team giving some players a chance to shine, while the home team will try and play with the same style that has produced plenty of goals this season.

If the first choice three forwards sit out the number of goals could be a problem, but Porto looked vulnerable at the back in the First Leg and having their own chances should help these teams hit four or more goals combined.

Paris Saint-Germain v Real Madrid Pick: The First Leg between these two European giants was a fascinating game with very little between them.

In fact I think the 3-1 First Leg lead for Real Madrid flattered the European Champions and I was convinced Paris Saint-Germain would still be able to turn things around and redeem themselves for the manner of their Last 16 loss to Barcelona twelve months ago.

Was is the most important word in that sentence though.

Since the First Leg Neymar has been lost to an injury for the home team and I do wonder if that is going to be critical to the outcome of this tie. No one will suggest Paris Saint-Germain don’t still have the attacking talent to overturn this deficit if they produce the same performance they did in the Spanish capital, but the loss of Neymar has tuned down my enthusiasm for PSG to turn the Last 16 tie around.

I would expect Paris Saint-Germain to put Real Madrid under pressure in front of their own fans having won 4 straight Champions League ties at home. All of those wins came with PSG scoring three or more goals including the thumping of Barcelona 4-0 last season, so Real Madrid have to be careful.

However I do think Real Madrid can also have success when they get forward with Cristiano Ronaldo in fine form in recent weeks. They had been scoring plenty on their travels prior to the 1-0 defeat to Espanyol last week, but Real Madrid have to be wary of their 3-1 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League Group Stage.

I backed four or more goals in the First Leg and the feeling is that we are going to see something like that again. Both Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid have the attacking quality to expose defensive vulnerabilities both teams have displayed.

I still have a sneaky feeling PSG will get through, but the absence of Neymar means I will just focus on the attackers to get the best of the defenders and providing goals for the neutrals to enjoy. Extra time being needed won’t surprise me either, but I will go back to the market that was successful in the First Leg and back at least four goals to be scored in the French capital on Tuesday.

Tottenham Hotspur v Juventus Pick: There were a fair number of Tottenham Hotspur fans you would have heard on the radio or read about on social media who are convinced the 2-2 draw in Turin is going to be enough to see their team through to the Quarter Final of the Champions League.

However I think it is too easy to put a line through a Juventus team who have some key players back for the Second Leg.

In saying that, I do think Tottenham Hotspur will be able to win but this is going to be a tense night in North West London and I fully expect Juventus to play their part. The problem is that they have to either win the game or score at least two goals in a draw to have a chance to progress to the Quarter Final and I think that is a tough task at Wembley Stadium where Tottenham Hotspur have been looking more and more comfortable in each passing week of the season.

The likes of Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Arsenal have all been beaten by Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium this season. All of those teams were outplayed by Spurs and there is enough talent in this Tottenham Hotspur team to wrap up this Last 16 tie with a win.

I have to respect the fact that Juventus will be a lot better in the Second Leg with Blaise Matuidi and Pablo Dybala back in the starting line up. The loss of Gonzalo Higuain would be a blow considering the Argentinian scored twice in the First Leg, but my bigger fear for Juventus is whether they can match the energy of their hosts with an ageing defence.

Back in Italy Juventus have remained very strong, but Barcelona hammered them in the Champions League and Tottenham Hotspur looked like they could have too much energy and quality for them. I wouldn't be surprised if there are three or more goals scored in this one with all of the Tottenham Hotspur Group games in the Champions League this season featuring that many goals and Juventus likely to have to open up at some point.

I also think Tottenham Hotspur will just have a little too much for a quality Juventus team who are perhaps not as strong defensively as they were a season ago. At some point Juventus will have to come out and I expect that will aid Tottenham Hotspur who have players to punish them and I like the English club to move through to the Quarter Final of the Champions League.

Juventus have continued to look strong defensively back in Italy, but Tottenham Hotspur carved them open a number of times in Turin and looked the better team. I can see the home team doing that again in this one and working their way to the victory and will back them to do that.

Manchester City v Basel Pick: Barring something quite outrageous occurring, Manchester City and Liverpool are two English clubs who will be in the Quarter Final draw for the Champions League a week on Friday.

Both teams should confirm their places at the end of this week's Champions League Last 16 Second Leg ties to be played and the layers are expecting Manchester City to crush Basel for a second time.

If there was the feeling that Pep Guardiola will pick his strongest eleven then that could happen, but instead it has to be expected that there will be wholesale changes to his team. That may mean Manchester City are not as clinical as they were in Switzerland where they beat Basel 0-4 and a changed team will also mean Basel can at least look to show they are better than how they performed in the home Leg.

However Basel have been in terrible form coming out of the Winter Break in Switzerland having lost 4 of their 5 games in all competitions and failing to score in any of those. The confidence has to be short going into a tough Second Leg and Basel may look to just produce a damage limitation exercise.

Changes could be made by Basel in a bid to keep players fresh for the domestic matters coming up and I think Manchester City will win this one.

Whether they win by enough goals to cover the handicap is a tougher question to answer, but the Basel lack of goals in recent games helps lead me to my pick.

Manchester City have beaten both Shakhtar Donetsk and Feyenoord at home in the Champions League without conceding and they have 4 clean sheets in 5 games in all competitions. With Basel's recent struggles in front of goal, even a changed backline for Manchester City should be able to cope with the Basel attacks and I would expect them to win this one with a clean sheet.

AC Milan v Arsenal PickA few years ago this would have been a big Champions League tie, but both AC Milan and Arsenal are going through some lean times.

At least AC Milan come in with some confidence having made some big investments in the summer and bringing in Gennaro Gattuso during the course of the season to oversee what had been an underachieving team. Since their former midfield enforcer has become manager, AC Milan have been in fine form though and they have been winning games behind strong defensive efforts.

You have to think that will be the game plan for Gattuso in this First Leg as he will look to make sure AC Milan don't give away too much and put Arsenal under some pressure.

After 4 losses in a row in all competitions culminating in the 2-1 defeat at Brighton on Sunday, Arsenal's confidence has to be in a really poor place though. That may encourage Milan to try and get forward and expose the vulnerabilities that Arsenal have shown in recent weeks, especially away from home where they have lost 4 of their last 5 in all competitions.

However I don't think Gattuso will overplay his hand and allow the talented Arsenal attacking players to expose spaces left behind. Keeping a clean sheet has to be the focus for the home team and I think this may be a tight game which does not feature a lot of goals.

AC Milan have kept 6 clean sheets in a row in all competitions, while they have also only conceded a single goal in their last 6 at the San Siro. Having Danny Welbeck leading the line for Arsenal should mean Milan feel comfortable in trying to contain their visitors, although I will say again that I don't think Milan will go gung-ho for the win either.

The home team have won 5 of 6 home games in the Europa League and I can understand why they have their backers with the form Arsenal are in. Confidence is a real problem for Arsenal at the moment, but I think Milan will make this a tighter fixture with limited chances and I will look for two or fewer goals to be produced in the First Leg which should mean the Second Leg is left in the balance.

Atletico Madrid v Lokomotiv Moscow Pick: It would be a real surprise if Atletico Madrid are not able to make it past Russian leaders Lokomotiv Moscow in this Last 16 tie in the Europa League.

You have to respect any team from Russia who are playing with the confidence Lokomotiv Moscow are, but this is another step up in terms of quality for them to face. They should be better prepared than they were in their Last 32 tie against Nice now Lokomotiv Moscow have had 3 games under their belt since the Winter Break, but falling 2-0 behind to Atletico Madrid would be a much bigger mountain to climb than it was against Nice.

Atletico Madrid do need to bounce back from their 1-0 defeat at Barcelona on Sunday which has left them 8 points behind the Spanish League leaders. However this is a team in fine form in recent weeks having won 8 in a row prior to that defeat and Atletico Madrid have been strong at home where they have won 5 in a row in all competitions without conceding a goal.

I imagine Lokomotiv Moscow will look to frustrate their hosts and earn a result that will put them in a good place for the Second Leg next week in the Russian capital. That won't be easy with the quality Atletico Madrid have in forward areas and I think they are going to grind out a lead to take to Russia next week.

Atletico Madrid have scored 11 goals in their last 5 home games in all competitions and beat Roma and Copenhagen at home in European competitions without conceding a goal in their last couple here. The home team are a short price to win this one with a clean sheet, but I think Atletico Madrid are not only capable of doing that, but they can beat Lokomotiv Moscow by at least two goals on the day.

Lokomotiv Moscow have only lost 1 of their last 9 away Europa League games, but that was a 2-0 defeat at Fenerbahce last season in the Last 32. They were also 2-0 down at Nice and I will back Atletico Madrid to cover the Asian Handicap.

Borussia Dortmund v Salzburg Pick: This has been a tough season for Borussia Dortmund but they look to have drawn a good tie to move through to the Europa League Quarter Final.

The home Leg is going to be very important to the Bundesliga club and they have to have full respect for a Salzburg team who have scored plenty of goals in this competition.

Not many would have picked Salzburg to get past Real Sociedad, while Borussia Dortmund were more than a little fortunate to beat Atalanta in the Last 32 tie. That has left plenty of room for improvement for Dortmund, but I would still be surprised if they are not able to produce a First Leg lead.

Goals haven't been a problem for Borussia Dortmund, but they concede plenty too so backing the home team to win a game featuring three or more goals is the call.

Marseille v Athletic Bilbao Pick: Neither Marseille nor Athletic Bilbao are in great form coming into this Europa League Last 16 tie which looks hard to call on paper. Both will recognise the importance of this competition to their season, but picking a winner over the two Legs looks really tough.

Home form in both Legs will be very important and the onus is on Marseille to try and earn some kind of lead to take across to Bilbao next week. Marseille's recent form doesn't offer much enthusiasm for them, but generally Marseille have been very strong at home where they are unbeaten in 16 games in all competitions and have won 11 of those.

Marseille have also won 5 of their 6 European home ties this season so they have to feel they can turn around recent form where the majority of the poorer results have come on their travels.

Athletic Bilbao losing 3 of their last 4 away games in all competitions has helped the layers decide that Marseille should be the favourites for this First Leg, but they still look short at odds on. That is mainly because Athletic Bilbao have seemingly reserved their best football for the Europa League this season and any team who have scored at least twice in 4 of their 5 away European games have to be respected.

They may be able to play their part and I think Marseille will be looking to get forward to produce a dominant position for the Second Leg.

Together that could see these teams combine for at least three goals especially as Athletic Bilbao have been scoring and conceding goals for fun for much of the season. Marseille have been a little inconsistent but they are good enough to find a winner in this one and I can see both teams score in the contest.

Backing three or more goals to be scored looks a big price here.

Leipzig v Zenit St Petersburg Pick: You have to credit Leipzig for working their way through to the Last 16 of the Europa League in their maiden season in any European competition but they haven't looked all that convincing doing it.

They finished third in a weak Champions League Group and only just beat Napoli in the Last 32 of the Europa League despite winning the First Leg 1-3 in Italy. With a big battle in Germany for the top four places developing, Leipzig are perhaps a little thin in the squad to deal with both domestic and European matters.

However they are facing a Zenit St Petersburg team who have similar issues to deal with the rest of the season.

Zenit St Petersburg are in for a battle to finish in the top three and the Champions League places in Russia, but like Leipzig they are still hoping the Europa League could produce another avenue back into the premier European competition.

Both teams should look at the other as a team they should be getting past and that could make this a very good tie. The failure of Zenit St Petersburg to score in either of their last couple of away games is a concern, but Leipzig have both scored and conceded goals for fun in European competition this season.

Much of that may be down to the inexperience for the players and the manager at this level and I can see this First Leg producing a few goals. Leipzig home games in European Football have seen plenty of goals scored and Zenit St Petersburg did score at east twice in half of their 6 away games in the Europa League this season.

At odds against backing at least three goals to be shared out looks a decent shout.

Sporting Lisbon v Viktoria Plzen Pick: Both Sporting Lisbon and Viktoria Plzen are likely to have looked at this Last 16 draw and been very happy with who they have been paired with. In an open draw with some huge names involved, both teams here should feel this is a tie that could lead them to the Quarter Final of a major European competition.

The edge has to be given to Sporting Lisbon who have a stronger European pedigree than Viktoria Plzen who have surprised many by reaching this Round of the Europa League.

Sporting Lisbon have only won 1 of their 5 home European games this season which is a surprise, but they have scored three times in their last couple here. In the Last 32 you could blame complacency for Sporting Lisbon blowing a 3-1 home lead against Astana as they were 6-2 up on aggregate at that point with ten minutes left to play.

There is also no doubt that Viktoria Plzen are not as strong away from home as they are in front of their own fans. Defeats in Steaua Bucharest and Lugano have come in the Europa League Group Stage and on both occasions Viktoria Plzen conceded three times so I do like Sporting Lisbon's chances of gaining a significant advantage heading to the Czech Republic for the Second Leg next week.

As long as Sporting Lisbon don't slip up like they did in the last Round, I will look for them to cover the Asian Handicap in this First Leg and be in a strong position for a Quarter Final berth at the end of Thursday evening.

MY PICKS: Liverpool-Porto Over 3.5 Goals @ 2.75 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
Paris Saint-Germain-Real Madrid Over 3.5 Goals @ 1.80 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
Tottenham Hotspur @ 2.30 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
Tottenham Hotspur-Juventus Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.10 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
Manchester City Win to Nil @ 1.92 Bet Victor (2 Units)
AC Milan-Arsenal Under 2.5 Goals @ 1.91 William Hill (2 Units)
Atletico Madrid - 1.75 Asian Handicap @ 1.81 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Borussia Dortmund & Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.25 Ladbrokes (2 Units)
Marseille-Athletic Bilbao Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.10 Bet365 (2 Units)
Leipzig-Zenit St Petersburg Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Sporting Lisbon - 1 Asian Handicap @ 2.12 Bet Victor (2 Units)

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