EUROPEAN football expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) reckons he’s found two value bets from the early Europa League kick-offs on Thursday.
Shakhtar Donetsk v Gent | Thursday 18.00 | BT Sport Extra
Eight league titles in 10 years established Shakhtar Donetsk as the major Ukrainian force but the Miners forced move away from their home city saw the side relinquish their domestic dominance.
Bitter rivals Dynamo Kiev collected top honours in each of the past two campaigns and with legendary head coach Mircea Lucescu tempted away after 12 years service, the 2009 Europa League champions were at a crossroads.
The club appointed Paulo Fonseca in the summer – a Portuguese Cup winner with Braga last season – with Champions League progression towards the top of his priority list after arriving at Shakhtar’s adopted Lviv home.
A defeat on penalties to Dynamo in the traditional Super Cup curtain-raiser was soon followed by an unexpected and embarrassing Champions League exit at Young Boys of Switzerland. The knives were immediately out for Fonseca.
But the Miners have since found their feet impressively, rolling out W10-D2-L0 to take a six-point advantage atop of the Ukrainian Premier League as well as a maximum point haul from their two Europa League group-stage tasks against Konyaspor and Braga.
The hosts have also started to pick up positive results in Lviv during continental action. Since a 4-3 defeat to Real Madrid in November 2015, Shakhtar have W5-D2-L0, keeping five clean sheets and scoring at least twice on six occasions.
Under Fonseca, the Miners have W8-D1-L0 at ‘home’ and shipped just two goals. And that resilient defensive strength is what I want to keep onside here.
In victories over Konyaspor and Braga in this competition, Shakhtar have faced just 13 shots – none of which have been on-target with just three attempted from inside the penalty box. Thursday’s hosts conceded an average expected goals rate of just 0.41 and enjoyed a 65.5% share of possession over the two games.
It’s over a 1,000 mile trek for 2015 Belgian champions Gent to undertake and it should be said the Buffalos have been picking up solid results on the continent this term and are indeed unbeaten in six European outings (W4-D2-L0).
Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s group have shipped just one goal in three Europa League away days this term but trips to Shkendija, Vitorul and Braga aren’t quite up to the same standard as the Ukrainian table-toppers on Thursday evening.
Gent have W10-D5-L2 across all competitions in 2016/17 but the majority of their good work has been delivered on home turf as the Buffalos have W2-D5-L2 on their travel, scoring once or not at all in six of those nine games as guests.
The Belgians monopolised possession in Braga (1-1) and at home to Konyaspor (2-0) but their point in Portugal was slightly fortuitous and I’m not expecting Shakhtar to be quite so generous here.
I’ll back Shakhtar to win to nil at a more than fair 29/20 (Coral).
Slovan Liberec v Fiorentina | Thursday 18.00 | BT Sport Extra
I’m one of those weirdos who supports a side in every country – there’s a few of us around…
Anyhow, as a Fiorentina fan in Italy it’s been pretty painful viewing this season. La Viola are really struggling in the final third and Paulo Sousa’s popularity in Florence is probably at its lowest ebb since he arrived on the scene in the summer of 2015.
Sunday’s 0-0 draw at home to Atalanta was particularly frustrating for Fiorentina followers with Sousa’s side nowhere near as dominant as they’re accustomed to being when hosting sides at their Stadio Artemio Franchi base.
That’s been an uncomfortable theme for La Viola this season – they’re just not creating enough going forward and their 45.05% shot ratio return in Serie A is only better than seven other divisional rivals. Worrying trends.
Fiorentina and Atalanta traded seven shots on-target each on Sunday without the net bustling and La Viola’s seven league fixtures have featured an average of just 1.71 goals per-game. Sousa’s charges have scored just six – only Palermo and Empoli have notched fewer.
The current malaise can be traced back to the end of 2015/16. Fiorentina concluded their campaign with just two triumphs in 12 to miss out on a top-four finish for the first time in four seasons and the Italians look overrated at odds-on for their trip to the Czech Republic here.
La Viola stuck five goals past Qarabag on matchday two and although the Italians could have easily hit double figures against the Azerbaijanis, the game was actually goalless when the minnows were reduced to 10 men after half an hour.
Sousa switched to a more adventurous 3-4-1-2 formation in that encounter but has been more willing to revert to his standard 3-4-3 across the majority of matches this term and a dour goalless draw at PAOK on matchday one looks a more likely outcome from this Thursday showdown.
Slovan Liberec began their season in July and although the Czechs have enjoyed a mixed W7-D4-L5 campaign and picked up just W2-D2-L3 over their most recent seven outings, the Blue-Whites have shown enough in a 2-2 draw at Qarabag and 2-1 home defeat to PAOK that they’re capable of competing.
Liberec scored in the first minute of both Group J games to date and another early goal for Jindrich Trpisovsky’s troops here could really ask questions of Fiorentina’s credentials. The hosts carved out six quality chances in their two previous tests and look decent 24/23 (BetVictor) shots with a +0.50 Asian Handicap start.
This selection will see us paid out if the Czechs avoid defeat so it’s worth noting Fiorentina have W3-D4-L2 on their Europa League travels since the start of 2015 – a 33% win record – and W3-D8-L7 in games as guests across all competitions since late November 2015 – that’s a 17% win rate.