EUROPEAN football expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) has made us a small fortune on the Europa League in the past two campaigns season. Here’s his favourite fancies from Thursday’s evening kick-offs.
Napoli v RB Leipzig | Thursday 15th February 2018, 20:05 | BT Sport
There’s not a huge amount to say here – Napoli just aren’t interested in the Europa League. Only this week, head coach Maurizio Sarri admitted he’s struggling to motivate his players, confirming that they are too focused on winning Serie A this season.
The Partenopei currently lead the league by a point over Juventus and with the prospect of winning a first Scudetto since 1990 looking more real than in decades, Sarri’s admitted doing without Europa League games could help in a season in which he believes Napoli are not tuned for European football.
“This is a European competition and it’s fascinating, but it’s borderline crazy considering the stress caused by the short time from the full-time whistle of the Leipzig game to the kick-off against SPAL [on Sunday].
“Everybody wants to keep getting better, but first of all, we’ve got to be competitive in Italy and then in Europe. This year, we’re struggling to have the mentality of a big club in Europe. It’s not only our fault – it also comes from us having more hunger when we play in Serie A.
“The league is crucially important for us, but we need to find the strength to open ourselves up to the idea of playing in Europe. I find it hard enough to motivate my players for European games, so if we start talking about the league, it’s only going to demotivate them even more.”
Only 6,000 tickets had been sold for Thursday’s fixture and a crowd of less than 10,000 is expected for the game at the San Paolo with supporters seemingly echoing Sarri’s thoughts with the Napoli boss confirming, “they’re more bothered about the league“.
The hosts skinny squad will certainly be without suspended star striker Dries Mertens and injured defender Vlad Chiriches, although more widespread changes are expected from the Italians.
Leipzig have struggled to match last season’s remarkable performances but the Germans do arrive sitting second in the Bundesliga. Their road record is far from convincing – won victory in six away league matches, W1-D1-L4 at the top-half domestically and well beaten at Besiktas and Porto in the Champions League.
However, circumstances dictate that they’re worthy of our interest with a +0.50 Asian Handicap start at 11/13 (188BET) despite the absence of Emil Forsberg, Ademola Lookman and left-back Marcel Halstenberg.
FC Copenhagen v Atletico Madrid | Thursday 15th February 2018, 20:05 | BT Sport
Atletico Madrid captain Gabi made a few disparaging comments about the Europa League when it looked like the Spaniards were going to drop down to Europe’s secondary competition from the Champions League a few months back.
So whether the capital club will be completely focussed and motivated to succeed on the continent remains to be seen. I am hopeful Diego Simeone’s men take the competition seriously but unlike the majority of their Europa League rivals, Los Rojiblancos boast a big enough squad to successfully tinker.
Champions under Simeone in 2012, this is Atleti’s last chance of silverware in 2017/18 – the La Liga title is Barcelona’s and Los Colchoneros were surprisingly ousted from the Copa del Rey at the semi-final stage by Sevilla recently.
The justified tournament favourites should be well able to flex their muscles in the Danish capital on Thursday night with a victory alongside Under 3.5 Goals for an attractive odds-against play of 21/20 (Betway).
Atletico dominated Roma in a 0-0 draw and were very decent when picking up a 1-1 draw at Chelsea during the Champions League group phase. The visitors have lost just once in 23 La Liga outings this term and certainly know how to keep things tight when travelling to European opposition.
Los Colchoneros have been grinding out narrow victories regularly of late – three of their last five league matches were won 1-0 – and away from home on the continent they’ve seen seven of their previous nine fixtures feature fewer than three goals.
FC Copenhagen have only played twice since the winter break in Denmark and are down in fourth spot domestically. They were recently knocked out of Danish Cup on home soil by Brondby and certainly aren’t the force they were having lost too many key players.
Benjamin Verbic and Kasper Kusk would have started but both left the club in January, whilst Zeca is suspended for the hosts who scraped through a weak Europa group, finishing ahead of Moldovan side Sheriff by virtue of a better head-to-head record.
Copenhagen were unbeaten in the group stages at the Parken Stadium, keeping three clean sheets, and have recorded Under 2.5 Goals winners in four of their six outings in this tournament. However, I’ll happily back Atletico to find a way to take a narrow first leg advantage back to Madrid.