EUROPEAN football expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) picks out his favourite fancies from Thursday’s early Europa League action.
FC Copenhagen v Ajax | Thursday 18:00 | BT Sport
FC Copenhagen delivered a smash-and-grab victory in Bulgaria to seal a vital first leg 2-1 first leg victory over Ludogorets in the Round of 32 and the Danish champions were forced to withstand plenty of pressure when grinding out a goalless draw back on home soil.
Stale Solbakken’s side progressed despite losing the shot count 18-39 over the tie. However, those raw stats don’t tell the full story as Ludogorets managed just an 8-7 supremacy from on-target efforts with both clubs attempting 11 shots from inside the opposition penalty box.
The Lions followed the second leg up with a draw at Nordsjaelland before battering both B 93 (3-0) and Horsens (5-0) to cement their nine-point advantage at the summit of the Danish league with only 10 games to play.
Copenhagen haven’t featured in European competition after Christmas since 2010/11 and anticipation is high around the city with the side impressing throughout the campaign, especially at their fortress Parken Stadium base.
FCK have suffered a sole reverse as hosts in 51 outings since December 2014 (W37-D13-L1) and are yet to concede in seven European home games this season (W4-D3-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 five months ago – at Leicester in October – with FCK winning 13 of the following 18 fixtures. At Parken, the Lions have W14-D5-L0 across all competitions, keeping a stunningly strong 12 successive clean sheets.
The hosts are available to back at 10/13 (188BET) off a scratch 0 start on the Asian Handicap, a selection that works in the exact same way as a punt on the Draw No Bet market – we’ll see our cash returned if the game ends in a draw.
Visitors Ajax are unbeaten in 11 consecutive Europa League outings and have returned W5-D3-L0 in this competition since the start of the group-stages. The 1992 UEFA Cup winners have drawn each of their past three Europa League trips to Legia Warsaw, Standard Liege and Celta Vigo so will be no easy meat.
The Dutch giants have W8-D2-L0 in their past 10 across all competitions but Peter Bosz’s charges disappointed in Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Groningen, a result that leaves Ajax four points adrift of bitter rivals Feyenoord at the top of the Eredivisie.
Ajax are without centre-back pairing Nick Viergever and Jairo Riedewald plus winger Pelle Clement through injury whilst right-back Joel Veltman and centre-half Davinson Sanchez are suspended for this encounter, handing the initiative towards overpriced Copenhagen.
APOEL Nicosia v Anderlecht | Thursday 18:00 | BT Sport Extra
APOEL Nicosia did us proud in the Round of 32 – despatching Athletic Bilbao in Cyprus – and there’s no reason to desert The Legend on Thursday night with Anderlecht travelling 3,000km to take on the GSP Stadium for battle.
Danish-born coach Thomas Christiansen – a former Barcelona trainee – has seen his side prevail in six of seven unbeaten (W6-D1-L0) home European encounters this term with APOEL collecting five clean sheets en-route.
The Legend won all three of their group-stage games here against Astana, Olympiakos and Young Boys before beating Athletic Bilbao to continue a remarkable return at their capital home.
Across all competitions this season, APOEL have W18-D3-L0. The home side are unbeaten here in over a year and have W7-D3-L3 when welcoming continental opposition.
Christiansen’s men set a new club (and national) record by accruing 12 points in this season’s pool stage and although the jubilation of ousting Bilbao saw them slide to a shock loss at Apollon in the immediate aftermath, The Legend bounced back with a 2-1 derby success over Omonia last time out.
Anderlecht progressed to this stage following a thrilling stoppage-time away goal success at Zenit St Petersburg. The Belgians won 2-0 in Brussels and were 3-0 down in Russia before Isaac Thielin saved the day late on.
The 1983 champions have W4-D2-L2 across their last eight outings but the visitors suffered a 3-2 reverse at Mechelen on Saturday to continue a rather unconvincing pattern of results on the road (W10-D6-L6) across all competitions.
Les Mauves et Blancs are led by former Swiss international Rene Weiler and have only kept their sheets clean twice in 14 away days and shipped two or more goals in eight of those occasions. With centre-back Kara Mbodji out injured and a tendency to rest and rotate in Europe, I’m happy to oppose the guests.
APOEL’s generous pre-match pricing allows us to back the hosts in the Draw No Bet market at a kind 19/20 (888). Again, we’ll see our stake returned if the game ends in a draw.