MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) picks out his favourite fancies from Thursday night’s Europa League coupon.
AZ Alkmaar v Dundalk | Thursday 18.00 | BT Sport/ESPN
Dundalk are only the second Irish side to ever reach the group-stages of the Europa League following Shamrock Rovers’ pointless return in 2011.
The Irish champions are 10 points clear and on course for a third successive domestic title and estimated to have taken over 1,000 supporters to the Netherlands for the historic occasion.
Boss Stephen Kenny saw his side perform superbly to see off FH Hafnarfjordur and BATE Borisov during Champions League qualification before eventually coming up short against Legia Warsaw. However, a W0-D2-L2 return from Dundalk’s past four continental road trips is a little concerning here.
The Lilywhites have been given a tough Europa League group alongside AZ, Zenit St Petersburg and Maccabi Tel Aviv and make the trip on Thursday with both Alan Keane and Darren Meenan looking likely to be absent.
Hosts Alkmaar finished fourth in the Eredivisie last term and have qualified from the group-stages of a UEFA Cup or Europa League campaign in five of their past eight appearances. The Dutch outfit have shipped just one goal in their last four continental clashes (W3-D1-L0) and have made a positive start to 2016/17.
John van den Brom’s outfit have won their past three league outings with their only defeat thus far coming against defending champions PSV Eindhoven across all competitions (W6-D2-L1). The Dutch team have conceded just once in five and now gone 307 minutes since last letting the opposition score.
Iranian star Alireza Jahanbakhsh is also in good form of late. Jahanbakhsh has scored four goals in his last six appearances for club and country, and that extra quality is likely to show when the two teams lock horns on Thursday night.
It’s hard not to fancy AZ here – they’ve W10-D2-L1 when including the back end of last season – but their organised and competitive defence should make Dundalk’s task that extra bit tougher and backing a home win ‘to nil’ appeals at a standout 13/10 (188BET).
Sassuolo v Athletic Bilbao | Thursday 18.00 | BT Sport Extra
Sassuolo make their first appearance in the Europa League group-stage on Thursday night and the Neroverdi face a tough introduction with a visit from Athletic Bilbao.
Last season’s home Serie A record (W8-D8-L3) made the Italians tough opposition on their own patch and boasting the peninsula’s fourth-best defence. Unfortunately, head coach Eugenio Di-Francesco lost a few key performers over the summer but Sassuolo did manage to keep hold of star forward Domenico Berardi.
Nevertheless, the Neroverdi have made an encouraging start to the new season. Having breezed through Europa League qualifying, Sassuolo saw off both Palermo and Pescara before succumbing to the all-conquering Juventus.
Thursday’s hosts have now managed to score in all seven of their matches across all competitions in 2016/17.
Visitors Athletic picked up their first three points of the new La Liga campaign with a 1-0 triumph over Deportivo and have strong pedigree in this competition.
The Basques won all three of their away group-games in last season’s competition and have also notched in all bar two of their previous 22 away Europa League games.
Les Leones have also seen the Both Teams To Score selection pay out in 10 of their past 14 away Europa League days so I’ll count on a repeat at even-money with Unibet.
Nice v Schalke | Thursday 20.05 | BT Sport Extra
I’m really looking forward to this contest – in fact, I reckon it’s the highlight of Thursday’s Europa League card.
Monaco upset the odds against Spurs on Wednesday night and their joint-league leaders in Ligue 1, Nice, welcome a Schalke side to the south of France for what’s potentially a mouthwatering encounter.
Former Gladbach boss Lucien Favre is Nice’s new man in charge but it’s deadline day signing Mario Balotelli’s who’s been hogging the headlights following his two-goal debut appearance in a 3-2 triumph over rivals Marseille on Sunday.
Favre changed his formation to 3-5-2 to accommodate the Italian and although it’s hard to second-guess his moves for this match, it’s thought he’ll persist the same system and personnel for the visit of Schalke. Another new signging, Younes Belhanda, is also pushing for a start.
Their weekend win means Nice have now claimed maximum points in 11 of their past 14 fixtures at the Allianz Riviera and that dependable home record makes Les Aiglons’ an excellent value option on the Asian Handicap line here.
The hosts have returned eight unbeaten games in Nice and boast a terrific W14-D3-L5 when welcoming Ligue 1 opposition since the start of last season. So I’m not sure why they’re rated such significant underdogs.
With that in mind, I’m backing Les Aiglons at 8/11 with a +0.25 Asian Handicap start. We’ll make money should the home side avoid defeat, picking up a full-stakes profit should Nice win and a half-stakes profit should the match end all-square.
Schalke are pointless from their first two Bundesliga fixtures although the Royal Blues did put up a good fight against Bayern Munich last Friday night. However, the Germans have were fortunate to only suffer a 1-0 reverse at Eintracht Frankfurt despite being dominated for large swatches of the encounter in their opener.
New head coach Markus Weinzierl will no doubt be concerned by the fact his side have failed to keep their sheets clean in the league since February and Schalke’s recent form reads just two league wins in nine and four from their last 14 on their travels.
The Germans are unbeaten in their last six European away days and have plenty of options in midfield and attack to rest and rotate should they wish but a rickety backline could again prove their undoing.
The Royal Blues shipped 49 goals in 2015/16 – the equal-second most in the top-half of the league last term – and will do well to keep their sheets clean here.
Panathinaikos v Ajax | Thursday 20.05 | BT Sport/ESPN
We correctly foresaw Ajax’s Champions League demise last month and the Dutch giants could be in for another rough European night when they travel to Athens on Thursday.
Frank de Boer departed after five-and-a-half-years at the end of 2015/16 with Peter Bosz quickly installed as the Amsterdammers new head coach.
The capital club had been edged out of the Dutch title race by the tightest of margins and were in need of a pick me up. Despite enjoying a player career away from Amsterdam, Bosz’s admiration of the Ajax school was well-known and his reputation as a forward-thinking boss appealed.
Bosz’s commitment for bold – at times, suicidal – and dynamic football has already been easy to see.
The four-time European Cup winners have seen seven of their nine matches under Bosz’s watch feature Both Teams To Score winners with six also producing Over 2.5 Goals.
The loss of top marksman Arkadiusz Milik to Napoli over the summer has taken a degree of quality away from the offence and whilst the youthful squad has plenty of promise, Ajax have looked a little too defensively vulnerable.
Statistically Ajax boasted the Eredivisie’s best backline during de Boer’s reign, helping the club win four domestic titles in six years. However, after a far from impressive pre-season, questions are already being asked of Bosz’s ability and methods following their unconvincing early displays (W4-D2-L2 across all competitions).
On their travels, the Amsterdammers have seen three or more goals in all four away games whilst a play on Over 3.5 Goals would have returned profit on three occasions. The bold nature of Bosz’s set-up make goals an obvious play here.
BTTS is available at 42/41 (888) and should be snapped up.
Panathinaikos are unbeaten this term (W4-D2-L0) and won both their home fixtures ‘to nil’, including Brondby 3-0 here. However, it’s hard to dismiss Ajax scoring with Bosz’s visitors so desperate to get on the scoresheet.