Europa League: Italian giants to bounce back in style

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EUROPEAN football expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) made us a small fortune on the Europa League last season. Here’s his favourite fancies from Thursday’s early kick-offs.

Austria Vienna v AC Milan | Thursday 14th September 2017, 18:00 | BT Sport

A decade after their last Champions League triumph, Milan and their ambitious Chinese owners will see this season’s Europa League as an ideal opportunity to mark their return at the Europe’s top table.

With seven European Cups to their name, the Rossoneri are Italy’s most decorated club on the continental stage and head into the secondary competition as 7/1 (Bet365) outright favourites following an expensive summer makeover.

More than £200 million has been splashed on new signings – an even bigger outlay than Juventus made 12 months ago – so after four years without European football, Milan are expecting to at least feature in the end of season title race.

Vincenzo Montella’s men eased through two Europa League qualifying stages, seeing off Universitatea Craiova and Shkendija by an aggregate 10-0 in the four fixtures and started Serie A life with back-to-back victories over Crotone (3-0) and Cagliari (2-1) ahead of their weekend trip to Lazio.

In truth, the Rossoneri were far from convincing in their win over Cagliari and their 4-1 beating by Lazio on Sunday certainly sent alarm bells ringing. Milan were dominated in midfield, 19-year-old striker Patrick Cutrone was bullied by the opposition backline and Leonardo Bonucci was singled out as the worst player on the pitch by Gazzetta dello Sport.

High profile additions Andre Silva, Hakan Calhanoglu and Nikola Kalinic started on the bench but should all be given a chance to impress on Thursday night as Milan bid to bounce back by taking maximum points from a very winnable trip to Austria Vienna.

And I’m happy to give the visitors the benefit of the doubt here by backing them to succeed in a game involving Over 1.5 Goals at 5/6 with BetStars. Should Milan triumph by any correct score bar 1-0, we’ll be in profit.

Austria Vienna propped up Group E in last season’s Europa League, winning a solitary game and only taking one point from three home fixtures. And the Austrian runners-up managed to progress to the group-stage despite losing the home leg of their qualifier against Osijek.

Head coach Thorsten Fink is well thought of in Vienna but his side were held 2-2 by Wolfsberger on Saturday and have recorded a sole shutout in seven domestic outings already this term, leaking at least twice on four occasions.

Those seven outings have featured an average of 3.70 goals per-game and last term’s six Europa League group-games produced 25 goals so I’m not expecting this encounter to send us to sleep.

Top goalscorer Olarenwaju Kayode may have been sold to Manchester City but replacement Christophe Monschein arrives with a good reputation following his controversial move from Admira, giving the hosts their own threat in forward areas.

Hoffenheim v Braga | Thursday 14th September 2017, 18:00 | BT Sport

The stats will say Hoffenheim were fortunate to beat Bayern Munich on Saturday evening but Julian Nagelsmann’s troops were good value for their 2-0 triumph.

Die Kraichgauer were out-shot 23-6 and enjoyed just 28% of the ball but such was their outstanding organisation, Hoffe always seemed in control of their destiny at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena.

Nagelsmann effectively fielded two lines of five that swiftly transitioned into a 3-5-2 when possession was turned over with Mark Uth and Andrej Kramaric harrying and hassling the Bayern backline in Hoffenheim’s renowned high-pressing system.

It worked a treat and now the Bundesliga’s 30 year-old coach of the year is eager to plot a path of progress as TSG enter their first-ever European campaign. Despite suffering a 6-3 defeat to Liverpool in Champions League qualification, Die Kraichgauer are determined to make their mark on the continent.

Under Nagelsmann’s watch, Hoffenheim have W18-D7-L1 at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena in league action so I’m happy to have them onside when they welcome Braga on Thursday evening.

The Portuguese outfit finished third in Group I last season, behind Shakhtar Donetsk and Gent and have made a slow start to the new season under new boss Abel Ferreira. Considering last season’s top scorer Rui Fonte left in the summer, along with Xeka, Bruno Jordao and Rodrigo Battaglio it’s understandable.

Braga have leaked in each of their last 16 European matches – mostly against vastly inferior opposition to Hoffenheim –and their only two triumphs this term have come against newly-promoted sides in the Primeira Liga.

The Archbishops failed to impress when ousting AIK and FH of Iceland en-route to the group-stages and have already suffered defeats to Benfica, Porto and Vitoria Setubal in domestic action.

I’d expect the guests to batten down the hatches here, aiming to collect a valuable point on their travels but Hoffenheim should still have enough in their armoury to pocket a home success. With that in mind, I’ll back the hosts to secure victory alongside Under 3.5 Goals at 5/4 (BetStars).

Hoffe kept 12/26 (46%) of clean sheets in their Bundesliga dates under Nagelsmann, scoring more than twice in only five fixtures. Meanwhile, six of Braga’s eight visits to top-half Portuguese teams last term saw no more than a solitary strike.

Best Bets

Austria Vienna v AC Milan – AC Milan to win and Over 1.5 Goals (5/6 BetStars)

Hoffenheim v Braga – Hoffenheim to win and Under 3.5 Goals (5/4 BetStars)

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After starting his career in newspaper journalism, Mark soon found his way into the online betting world, forging a career in content, social media and marketing production. With a huge passion for stats, the Football League and European football, Mark’s other interests include playing rugby, following his beloved QPR and travel.

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