EUROPEAN football expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) picks out his two favourite fancies from the late Europa League kick-offs on Thursday.
Mainz v Anderlecht | Thursday 20.05 | BT Sport Extra
Mainz flirted with the top-four in the Bundesliga last season but Die Nullfunfer concluded their campaign in sixth – their best finish to a league campaign since 2011 – an exceptional effort considering their two best players were sold in the summer of 2015.
Indeed, it’s been a remarkable tale following the Carnival Club over the past 18 months. Martin Schmidt was parachuted in as head coach from his U23 position with Die Nullfunfer one point clear of the relegation zone in February 2015.
The Swiss boss guided the unfashionable outfit to 11th before losing both Shinji Okazaki and Johannes Geis and replacing them with unheralded prospects.
But few sides in world football operate or buy so consistently well and Mainz defied pre-season predictions of doom to beat three of the top five on their way to another outstanding season.
The courageous and spirited Die Nullfunfer broke records with their energetic performances too, running and sprinting more than any of their divisional rivals in Bundesliga action. If you’ve never watched German football, you’d enjoy following the Carnival Club.
Fast forward to 2016/17 and Schmidt again saw key players leave in the off-season. Goalkeeper Loris Karius joined Liverpool and holding midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger moved to Leverkusen – Mainz’s record without the Austrian marauder was far from remarkable.
Still, Die Nullfunfer are coping adequately. A W3-D2-L2 return has Schmidt’s side operating in the top-half of the Bundesliga and Thursday night’s hosts have also picked up four points from their European group-stage action.
Mainz’s continental matches have produced plenty of thrills – 1-1 at home to Saint-Etienne and a 3-2 win at Qabala – with Baumgartlinger’s loss still hitting the side hard from a defensive viewpoint.
The Carnival Club have kept just a solitary clean sheet in 10 outings this season with Both Teams To Score landing in nine occasions and Over 2.5 Goals collecting in eight encounters. Paddy Power have quoted BTTS as a 4/5 play for the visit of Anderlecht, a price that’s just too good to turn down.
The Belgians have attempted the second-most shots in the group-stage thus far, firing in 26 efforts against Qabala (3-1 home win) and 12 during their 1-1 draw at Sainte-Etienne. Les Mauves et Blancs leaked late on in France to deny them a maximum point return.
Rene Weiler has seen his troops W10-D5-L2 across all competitions this season but goals have been a familiar theme with the Brussels-based club seeing Both Teams To Score bank in 9/17 (53%) and Over 2.5 Goals pay out in 10/17 (59%) of Anderlecht’s contests.
Les Mauves et Blancs’ two group-games have produced an expected total goals count of 6.10 and Weiler’s men have fired a solitary blank in eight games as guests this term whilst also striking six goals in European trips to Slavia Prague, Rostov and Saint-Etienne.
Genk v Athletic Bilbao | Thursday 20.05 | BT Sport Extra
Four defeats in eight suggests the bookmakers are right to calk Genk up as 16/5 outsiders for their home encounter with Athletic Bilbao but I’m willing to wager the Smurfs can pull out a positive result.
Also known as the Blauw-Wit, Genk have really impressed me during their Europa League assignments this season.
Peter Maes’ men have played with the handbrake off and were thoroughly good value for a 3-1 win when welcoming Sassuolo to the Luminus Arena whilst also playing a blinder in an unfortunate 3-2 reverse at Rapid Vienna.
Three goals in 10 second-half minutes proved the Smurfs’ downfall in Austria with a comical own goal from Omar Colley proving decisive. His back pack pass took a horrible bobble off the turf, deceiving Genk cat Marco Bizat.
Nevertheless, Maes has been understandably buoyant about his team’s performances with Jamaican speedster Leon Bailey particularly impressing.
The 19 year-old is the group stage’s joint-top scorer with three goals and no player has fired in more efforts on goal (9). Ronald de Boer’s a big fan of the Genk prodigy and he’s reportedly commanding the attention of Manchester United scouts.
Bailey looks far too big at 5/1 (Bwin) to add his goal tally on Thursday having already notched eight goals in 18 appearances this season at a rate of a goal every 186 minutes.
Genk are an attack-minded outfit – only three clubs have fired in more efforts (33) over the two group-games thus far as they’ve landed 16 on-target. And the Smurfs are also very consistent operators at the Luminus Arena (W7-D1-L1).
It’s also worth noting that this is the Belgians third Europa League group-stage campaign since 2012/13 and their record in Europe during that time is a very healthy W17-D9-L4 including qualifiers and W8-D7-L3 when excluding preliminaries.
For the record, Genk’s home return during the above sample is W11-D2-L2 including qualifiers and W5-D2-L2 when excluding qualification so there’s more than enough evidence to suggest the sharp-shooters could trouble Athletic.
Bilbao beat bitter rivals Real Sociedad for the first time since 2012 in Sunday’s thrilling derby duel, lifting Ernesto Valverde’s troops to sixth in the La Liga table (W4-D0-L3). Only one of those triumphs arrived by a margin of two goals or more.
In Europa League duty, Les Leones saw off Rapid Vienna 1-0 at San Mames reducing the Austrians to just a sole effort at goal. Athletic were quite wasteful in that encounter despite veteran Aritz Aduritz being given a rare start in continental action.
It was a timely three points considering Bilbao were 3-0 losers at Sassuolo on matchday one. Athletic enjoyed more possession and attempts at goal but Valverde’s men were hit on the counter-attack by the Italians with three goals in the final half hour.
I’d expect Genk to adopt a similar philosophy to Sassuolo here and it could prove profitable with the +0.50 Asian Handicap available at 22/23 (188BET).
Les Leones have W3-D3-L4 on their Europa League travels since 2015 and W12-D6-L14 in away La Liga and Europa League fixtures since the start of last season – a 37% win rate.
Mainz v Anderlecht – Both Teams To Score (4/5 Paddy Power)
Genk v Athletic Bilbao – Genk +0.50 Asian Handicap (22/23 188BET)
Genk v Athletic Bilbao – Leon Bailey to score at anytime (5/1 Bwin)