EUROPEAN football expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) picks out his favourite fancies from Thursday’s evening Europa League action.
FC Copenhagen v Ludogorets | Thursday 20:05 | BT Sport Extra
FC Copenhagen hold a 2-1 advantage heading into Thursday’s second leg having completed a smash-and-grab victory in Sofia when the two teams met a week ago.
The Danish champions lost the shot count 15-6 in Bulgaria but scored with two of only three on-target attempts to collect a crucial victory and put the Lions in pole position for progression ahead of the second leg.
Stale Solbakken’s side followed up their success with a 0-0 draw against fierce city rivals Brondby to retain their 11-point advantage at the summit of the Danish league. Both games came in the immediate aftermath of FCK’s winter break.
The hosts are rated as 10/13 (888) shots to seal their route to the Last 16 with a win here and it’s a price I’m willing to support knowing how strong the Danes have been at their fortress Parken Stadium base in recent times.
Copenhagen have suffered a sole reverse as hosts in 49 outings since December 2014 (W36-D12-L1) and are yet to concede in six European home games this season (W4-D2-L0). Porto, Leicester and Club Brugge were all shutout in the Lions den with Solbakken’s troops dominating the performance data in all three encounters.
The Danes’ one and only defeat this season arrived four months ago – at Leicester in October – with FCK winning 11 of the following 14 fixtures. At Parken, the Lions have W13-D4-L0 across all competitions, keeping a stunningly strong 10 successive clean sheets.
Claudiu Keseru’s strike nine minutes from time gives Ludogorets hope of turning the tie around but the Bulgarians face an uphill battle here having won once on their continental travels since February 2014 (W1-D6-L7) despite seven of that sample of 14 fixtures being qualifiers.
Georgi Dermendzhiev’s charges haven’t lost in domestic action since August but chasing this tie could leave them exposed and I’d fancy Copenhagen to show their steel by sealing progression with a victory.
Genk v Astra Giurgiu | Thursday 20:05 | BT Sport Extra
Genk cashed-in on star forward Leon Bailey during January but the Belgians continued their offensively-minded Europa League campaign with an excellent 2-2 draw away at Astra Giurgiu last time out.
However, the Smurfs will have been gutted to have allowed a two-goal lead slip with the Romanians levelling in stoppage-time of a pulsating encounter.
I’m going to bank on another entertaining contest when the pair lock horns at the Luminus Arena on Thursday evening with Both Teams To Score looking a little too big to ignore at even-money at Betway.
Genk have bagged six wins from six Europa League outings at home this season, shipping just one goal. The hosts are unbeaten in five but followed up their 2-2 draw in Giurgiu with a frustrating 1-1 draw at home to Sporting Charleroi leaving the Smurfs marooned in mid-table.
Peter Maes was dismissed in late December after a disappointing run of league results and new head coach Albert Stuivenberg – Louis van Gaal’s assistant at Manchester United – is still finding his feet with the Genk squad.
A run of only two reverses in 12 (W6-D4-L2) and a W10-D2-L2 return at the Luminus Arena suggest the Belgians are value to pick up a positive result but it’s worth noting that goalkeeper Marco Bizot, centre-back Sebastien Dewaest, midfielder Tino-Sven Susic, winger Dante Vanzeir, and striker Nikolaos Karelis are all crocked for this contest.
Visitors Astra bagged a 1-0 triumph over Vilitorul on Sunday to extend their unbeaten streak to four but clawing a way into the top-two of Romania’s top-tier appears unlikely for last year’s champions who are 10 points adrift of second-placed Steaua Bucharest.
Nevertheless, Marius Sumudica’s side have saved their best performances for the road and the Black Devils have W8-D2-L1 of their last 11 away days, claiming three Europa League wins from four games as guests already this season.
The Romanians won the shot and shots on-target count over their three trips to Roma, Austria Vienna and Victoria Plzen, averaging 6.00 efforts on-target and 1.10 expected goals per-game – mightily impressive stats that deserve our respect.
With Astra requiring a goal to stand any chance of progressing and having notched in all bar one of their last nine away matches, plus Genk getting on the scoresheet in 19 of their 21 home outings this term, I’m happy to support another goal-heavy game here.