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.
Nice v Lazio | Thursday 19th October 2017, 18:00 | BT Sport
Lazio are perched inside Serie A’s top-four after eight games (W6-D1-L1) following their surprise 2-1 success at Juventus on Saturday night.
No team had beaten the Old Lady on their own patch in two years: a run stretching back 57 games across all competitions and the Bianconeri boasted a W37-D1-L0 record in league football going into the encounter. But Ciro Immobile’s double gave the capital club a first Serie A win over Juve since 2003.
Immobile now has 15 goals in just 11 appearances in 2017/18, a run of form that’s included goals in both of the Biancocelesti’s Europa League group games despite starting both from the bench. Head coach Simone Inzaghi has been keen to rest and rotate his squad this season and is likely to do so again here.
Nevertheless, I’ve been so impressed by Lazio this season that it’s hard to discount the Eagles at 13/17 (888) with a +0.25 start on the Asian Handicap. This selection would see us collect profit should the Italians avoid defeat in Nice.
The visitors only made three changes for their 2-0 win against Zulte Waregem in Rome and come into this contest unbeaten in six European away days. In fact, the Biancocelesti have suffered just one reverse in 16 away Europa League ties since 2012/13 and arrive on the back of four successive victories in all.
Lazio have only once in their history topped their current tally of 21 goals after eight league games and should have enough in their locker to give Nice a stern examination at the Allianz Riviera on Thursday evening.
Group K is the only Europa League pool to feature two teams with perfect starts and the double-header between these early pacesetters will likely decide who wins the group, and is thus seeded in the Last 32. So I expect Lazio to be fully focussed on the job at hand.
Nice are the competition’s joint-top scorers with eight goals with Alassane Plea scoring twice in each match impressing. But Les Aiglons have already been comfortably beaten 2-0 twice by Italian opposition this term as Napoli eased past the Ligue 1 hosts in Champions League qualification.
Lucien Favre’s troops haven’t quite lived up to the heady heights of last season and on the south coast, Nice have managed just three wins in eight outings thus far, losing on three occasions already, including last time out against near neighbours Marseille.
Goals should be on the agenda – Nice’s last four home matches have produced 15 and Lazio’s last eight, home and away, have brought 35. But I’m happiest having the visitors onside as they bid to take a firm grip on the group.
Ostersunds v Athletic Bilbao | Thursday 19th October 2017, 18:00 | BT Sport
Athletic Bilbao and Hertha Berlin were expected to dominate Group J but after two rounds of action both prop up the pool with their only points coming in a stalemate against each other.
Surprisingly, Zorya Luhansk of Ukraine sit second but Swedish outfit Ostersunds lead the way in their maiden Europa League campaign having recorded back-to-back wins ‘to nil’ against both Zorya and Hertha Berlin.
Managed by Englishman Graham Potter, OFK have undergone a remarkable transformation since their formation only 20 years ago. The club from central Sweden – better known for skiiers than footballers – only joined their domestic top-flight in 2015/16 with Potter steering the Winter City side from the fourth tier to the Allsvenskan in seven years.
Potter and club chairman Daniel Kindberg are known for their unconventional coaching ideas– including broadening players’ minds by having them work together on cultural projects such as writing books, staging an art exhibition, acting and even putting on a production of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake but it seems to be working for the Swedes.
Ostersunds scaled new heights in 2017 when they won their first Swedish Cup before dumping Galatasaray out of European competition during the Europa League qualifiers, 3-1 on aggregate. Progress has been underpinned by an excellent defensive effort, specifically at their compact Jamtkraft Arena home.
OFK are yet to concede a goal on home soil in Europe, have kept 6/14 (43%) clean sheets in the Allsvenskan in front of their own supporters and have suffered a sole reverse at the Jamtkraft Arena across all competitions.
The hosts are skippered by Iraqi international Brwa Nouri whilst Iranian forward Saman Ghoddos is the side’s main source of goals and they arrive at this encounter in decent nick having W8-D2-L1, silencing nine of their 11 opponents in that recent sample.
So odds of 15/14 (Unibet) on Ostersunds with a +0.50 start on the Asian Handicap seems more than fair for Thursday’s battle against Athletic Bilbao.
Spanish clubs haven’t lost to their Swedish equivalents since 1994, a run of 18 games. But Les Leones are struggling for form (W0-D2-L2) outside of their Basque base since August.
Jose Angel Ziganda could be tempted to give veteran striker Aritz Aduriz a rest after a tough Saturday test against Sevilla, a match in which Bilbao picked up their first victory in seven (W1-D2-L4) despite being distinctly second-best for large swathes of that encounter.
With Iker Muniain out long-term, options in forward areas are a little limited for Athletic with Inaki Williams possibly preferred to lead the line. Williams has struggled to find his best thus far and could find opportunities limited against a stubborn home defence that will sit deep to negate the threat of the counter.
Goals are likely to be thin on the ground – only four have been seen in this pool thus far – and that should favour the home side.