MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) picks out his favourite fancies from Tuesday night’s Champions League qualifying coupon.
Roma v Porto | Tuesday 19.45 | BT Sport ESPN
There’s a theory amongst football’s leading journalists that the Champions League qualifying play-off round is potentially the best knockout football of the season. It’s an idea I tentatively subscribe to.
For sides such as Roma and Porto, reaching the group-phase of the Champions League is monumentally important. From a financial aspect, it’s huge. But for us neutrals too, it’s fascinating seeing such big clubs slugging it out in August.
It’s a shame that one of these teams won’t feature in the main competition next month but Tuesday night’s second leg promises plenty and I’d urge you all to tune in to saviour what’s quite possibly the biggest game of the season for this pair.
Last week’s contest in Portugal was as intriguing and entertaining as I’d hoped. Porto failed to justify our first leg faith with victory and to be fair, the Dragons were second-best for the first hour and trailed until Thomas Vermaelen’s red card for Roma swung the initiative towards Nuno Espirito Santo’s side.
Roma were down to 10 men for close to an hour but Andre Silva’s second-half penalty was all Porto managed despite laying siege to the Giallorossi goal.
The visitors have only once failed to reach the group-stages of the Champions League since their memorable 2004 triumph but they’ll need a vast improvement here to avoid adding to that record.
Nuno’s been brought in to end three trophy-less seasons in the northern Portuguese city and has dropped last season’s top scorer Vincent Aboubakar and playmaker Yacine Brahimi with the pair up for sale. Andre Silva’s netted in all three 2016/17 outings but there must be concern in the Dragons’ ranks.
Last week was a real missed opportunity and the travellers record in games as guests on the continent is far from inspiring. Porto have W5-D5-L5 in away Champions League games (including four clean sheets) with victories coming at Maccabi Tel Aviv, BATE Borisov, Athletic Bilbao, Lille and Austria Vienna.
This Dragons outfit isn’t the force it once was and having conceded twice in five of last season’s group-games, goalkeeper Iker Casillas is likely to be a busy man in the Stadio Olimpico.
Roma stormed into third-place last season after a fabulous rally under Luciano Spaletti’s watch. The Giallorossi won 14 of 17 unbeaten games at the end of the season and finished Serie A as the division’s top goal-getters (83).
The capital club did struggle defensively, shopping 41 goals – more than any other top-four rival. Although Roma lost just four league games all season, Wednesday’s guests kept their sheets clean on just eight occasions. However, they opened 2016/17 with a 4-0 tonking of Udinese.
Still, with Vermaelen suspended plus Antonio Rudiger, Vasilis Torosidis and Abdullahi Nura and Mario Rui all out plus doubts over Kostas Manolas and Leandro Paredes’ involvement, the Wolves could be a little fragile at the back. And did I mention they’ve managed just one European clean sheet in 17?
Nevertheless, Roma began pre-season early in preparation for this and did make an impressive start before the red card. I expect Luciano Spaletti’s side to progress and they’re vastly superior in midfield with Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan as well as in attack thanks to the ability of Mohamed Salah, Edin Dzeko and Diego Perotti.
The hosts rested a clutch of their star names at the weekend with this fixture in mind and whilst I fancy them to take match-winning honours, I’m going to be bold and chuck in Both Teams To Score (45/17 888) too.
I’m just not at all convinced the Giallorossi are defensively solid enough to keep a clean sheet.
Monaco v Villarreal | Tuesday 19.45| BT Sport Extra
Monaco made the most of Villarreal’s struggles at El Madrigal last week, prevailing 2-1 thanks to Fabinho’s early penalty and a brilliant individual effort from Bernardo Silva after Alex Pato had levelled things up for the Yellow Submarine.
Leonardo Jardim’s men now hold a significant advantage ahead of the Stade Louis II return leg and it would take a brave man to bet against the principality club in front of their home supporters. Quarter-finalists two seasons ago, Monaco are now just 1/5 to reach the group-stage.
Les Rouges et Blancs rested the bulk of their first-choice XI at the weekend but picked up a deserved 1-0 success at Nantes in their last outing and although Falcao and Vagner Love remain absent, Jardim’s group should have the tools to add to their advantage.
Monaco have W13-D7-L2 as hosts across all competitions, notching at least twice in 11 of their most recent 13 fixtures on home soil. In only one of those matches did Les Rouges et Blancs fail to find the back of the net with the Ligue 1 club scoring in all five games in 2016/17, including their 3-1 triumph against Fenerbahce here in the previous round.
According to Football Form Labs’ data, since the 1999/00 season there have been 115 Champions League qualifying round second legs where the home side held a one-goal advantage from the first leg. These teams won 70% of second legs (losing just 13%) so a home success looks a strong angle.
Last Wednesday, Monaco were in front inside five minutes at El Madrigal and it was a similar story when Fenerbahce visited with Les Rouges et Blancs ahead after two minutes and leading 3-0 at the interval. Although Villarreal levelled in the first leg, an early goal here could see the Spaniards fold and so the 13/4 from Coral on Monaco/Monaco in the Half-Time/Full-Time market appeals.
Villarreal enjoyed their best La Liga finish since 2010/11 last term but the Yellow Submarine have endured a dreadful off-season, so much so there’s plenty of ‘crisis’ talk being banded around with shrewdies also having a wager on relegation.
The La Liga side saw impressive head coach Marcelinho depart just a week before the start of the season after a disagreement over transfer strategy whilst the squad has been hit very hard by departures and injuries since May too.
Fran Escriba has taken charge – he was sacked by Getafe just weeks before they suffered relegation – and although the defensively-minded boss suits Villarreal’s style, plenty of pundits were queuing up to criticise the appointment.
Last year’s top goalscorer Cedric Bakambu is absent, as is Roberto Soldado, Jonathan Dos Santos and new addition Dennis Cheryshev. Nicola Sansone is ineligible and centre-back Mateo Musacchio has had his head turned by Milan for much of the summer.
Meanwhile, first team regulars Alphonse Areola, Eric Bailly and Dennis Suarez have all departed the Yellow Submarine this summer.
In the 12 league matches that Soldado missed in 2015/16, Villarreal were beaten on six occasions and scored just 12 goals – four of those losses came against bottom-six finishers whilst two of their four triumphs in that sample came against the bottom-two.
It’s a similar tale with Bakambu – the Yellow Submarine lost just twice in 18 encounters with him leading the line. However, they were turned over in eight of the 20 fixtures he missed, failing to score on eight occasions.
Villarreal averaged less than one goal-per-game on their travels last season and failed to win any of their six road trips during pre-season, as well as at Granada in their La Liga curtain-raiser. Things look bleak for the Yellows and I’m happy going against them again.