CHRIS Graham (@chrisgraham79) takes a look at two of Thursday’s Europa League matches.
Shakhtar Donetsk v Braga | Thursday 20:05 | BT Sport Extra
My esteemed colleague Mark O’Haire is looking at the other two Europa League ties on Thursday so I’ve been left with this pair. Let’s hope for some winners.
In this first match I’m very much sweet on Shakhtar Donetsk. They look to have boned up (not literally) since they returned from their extended winter break and seem to be flourishing just as their opponents seem to going in the opposite direction.
Their first competitive match in 2016 was a sleepy home draw with Schalke on 18th February earlier in this competition but from there they’ve kicked on and won eight of their next 11 matches.
Schalke were smashed 3-0 in Germany in the return leg and Anderlecht were beaten home and away in the following round of the Europa League. Shakhtar had the tie wrapped up in the first leg but still managed an away win in the return. Food for thought here.
The Ukrainian side have scored 13 goals in their last three matches and in the middle of that spell was a 2-1 win in Portugal over Braga in the opening leg. With the tie not quite wrapped up you’d imagine Shakhtar will pour everything into this on Thursday.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Braga, They kicked off the month with a shocking 5-1 defeat at the hands of Benfica that leaves them well adrift of the big three in Portugal and last weekend they failed to get past lowly Moreirense.
On top of this Braga have failed to win any of their last five away games and picked up just two wins from their last nine matches on their travels. Worrying.
8/11 on the home side looks attractive but I’ll be brave and back them -1 on the Asian Handicap at chunky odds of 9/7 with BetVictor. I don’t expect a let up from the Ukrainian side.
Sparta Prague v Villarreal | Thursday 20:05 | BT Sport Extra
Despite the classic European name it’s pretty rare these days for a club like Sparta Prague to be this deep into a European competition. Czech football isn’t renowned for producing clubs who excel in the Champions League or Europa League so this is a fine achievement to see them in the last eight.
Bookmakers don’t rate their chances too highly here in this second leg tie against Villarreal. Trailing 2-1 from the first leg in Spain, the layers go as big as 3/1 on Sparta winning on Thursday.
I think that may be a little harsh on the Czech side on what they’ve achieved in this competition this season. Yes, it’s certainly true that Villarreal are the toughest side they’ve faced so far but going unbeaten in a group involving Schalke merits respect.
Their group success consistency has been taken up another level in the knockout stage with a comfortable two leg win over tricky Krasnodar preceding a stunning 4-1 aggregate win over Lazio in the Last 16.
Sparta’s 3-0 win in Italy in the second leg of that tie was truly remarkable and it would be doing them a big disservice to write them off here on Thursday.
Villarreal have had a tougher draw in the knockout stages and deserve huge respect by seeing off Napoli and Bayer Leverkusen in the last two rounds.
Marcelino’s side may carry less stock for this competition than their opponents though. They’re currently embroiled in a battle to finish in a Champions League qualifying spot in La Liga while you get the impression Sparta’s run to the quarter-finals has captured the Czech Republic.
Sentiment aside Villarreal have hardly impressed away from home recently and have won just one of their last eight matches on the road. It gives the Czech side a little bit of hope.
On the basis of how well they played last week, their desperation to achieve in this competition and Villarreal’s less than amazing recent away run I’ll back Sparta to avoid defeat at 19/20 with Coral.
Shakhtar Donetsk v Braga – Shakhtar Donetsk -1 Asian Handicap (9/7 BetVictor)
Sparta Prague v Villarreal – Sparta Prague Double Chance (19/20 Coral)
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