MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) tackles Thursday night’s Europa League card in games not involving Premier League clubs.
Valencia v Athletic Bilbao | Thursday 18.00 | BT Sport
Just when it looks like Gary Neville might be getting a hold of the Valencia gig, Los Che turn up at local rivals and rock-bottom Levante and put in one of the worst possible performances, losing 1-0.
From the kick-off Neville’s men gave the ball away and it didn’t get any better for the former Manchester United man, who understandably lost his rag post-match, saying seethingly:
“I have no defence. I’ve been here three months and I’ve sat up here after defeats and defended performances, I’ve sat up here and said that we’re unlucky in certain performances, [but]today I can’t defend [them]. I’m not defending that.
“I take responsibility for the defeat, but that was an indefensible performance, unacceptable, not good enough. I apologise to the fans of Valencia because the very basic premise of a football match is that you run, fight and tackle as hard as the opposition.
“Today Levante were the better team, I told their coach that at the end of the game. It is unacceptable in this city for us to play like that in a game of such importance to the people, against your local rivals, who are at the bottom of the league, who fought for every single ball.
“We weren’t good enough.”
Neville certainly wasn’t wrong and now Valencia look to try and salvage their season against Athletic Bilbao, trailing 1-0 from the first leg. Neville will be expecting a response at Mestalla as his side have now slipped to four defeats in five but it’s hard to find the faith in Los Che.
The hosts have recorded just two clean sheets in 13 – both against Rapid Vienna and in La Liga action they’ve managed no shutouts in 18. With only four home triumphs in 12 under Neville, Valencia are also without the impact of injured January signing Denis Cheryshev.
Los Che have already lost three times to Athletic this season as well as retuning W0-D4-L4 in their last eight head-to-heads and the market certainly doesn’t expect the east-coast club to produce the goods on Thursday night.
Athletic arrive on the back of five consecutive victories across all competitions and boss Ernesto Valverde rested his stars for Sunday’s match-up with Real Betis. Although not out of Champions League qualification running through the league, Les Leones recognise Europa League glory is achievable.
The Basques have bagged six wins in 10 on their travels, only losing to Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla in that spell. Indeed, the visitors are the Spanish top-flights third top scorers after Barca and Real and should pose a shaky Valencia defence problems.
Veteran striker Aritz Aduriz is one of those players that will be recalled following his Sunday rest and this season’s Europa League top scorer looks a fantastic price at 9/5 (888) to add to his seven-goal tally in this competition here.
Aduriz surfed, snowboarded, climbed mountains and skied so well that at the age of nine he was runner-up in Spain’s national cross country championships, all before he decided to take up football. With only one international cap – and 15 minutes against Lithuania in 2010 – the 35-year-old deserves a recall.
The Basque hitman has scored 17 La Liga goals this season – only one player in the history of La Liga has managed that many in a season aged 35 or over and that was Ferenc Puskas. And he’s scored 65 goals in La Liga since 2012.
Up to the age of 31, Aduriz averaged 0.29 goals a game and since his 31st birthday, he has averaged over 0.55 goals a game. This season he’s plundered 30 goals in 40 appearances in 43 appearances across all competitions and is scoring at a rate of once every 110 minutes.
Brilliant in the air, ferociously competitive, and as clever in the box as he is tirelessly unselfish running outside of it, occasionally Aduriz can be too unselfish for his own good but he’s flourished in Athletic’s 4-3-3 system and can add to his incredible tally at a big value price.
Bayer Leverkusen v Villarreal | Thursday 18.00 | BT Sport
Bayer Leverkusen were forced to thank goalkeeper Bernd Leno for producing a sterling performance between the sticks on Sunday as Roger Schmidt’s side ended a W0-D1-L3 run with an unconvincing 1-0 victory over Hamburg.
The pressure on Schmidt to arrest Die Werkself’s 2016 slump remains and the Leverkusen head coach has demanded consistency from his players as they look to turn around a 2-0 deficit from the first leg against Villarreal.
Cedric Bakambu struck twice at El Madrigal last week and beleaguered Bayer boss Schmidt appreciates a heavy casualty list hasn’t helped his cause. On Thursday, Leverkusen will be without Sebastian Boenisch, Roberto Hilbert, Kevin Kampl, Lars Bender and Omer Toprak with Christophe Kramer doubtful.
To make matters worse, Tin Jedvaj is now suspended following his sending off in the reverse fixture, leaving Die Werkself looking noticeably weak in defence. It’s certainly not ideal for a side that’s recorded a solitary shutout in seven (W2-D1-L4).
Schmidt has switched to a 4-4-2 system in all of Bayer’s Europa League outings thus far so we should expect Stefan Kiebling and Javier Hernandez to lead with Kyriakos Papadopoulos possibly asked to continue to fill the midfield again. Either way, Leverkusen’s BayArena form needs addressing – W2-D1-L3.
The Bundesliga boys are coming up against one the continent’s most organised and efficient backlines on Thursday. Villarreal have churned out clean sheets in eight of their last 11 outings and will be hell bent on giving away an away goal.
Only Atletico Madrid are facing fewer shots-on-target in La Liga and although Marcelinho’s men are missing Mateo Musacchio, I still fancy their chances of avoiding defeat here. Villarreal rested and rotated in their thrilling weekend loss at Sevilla and they’ve suffered just two losses in 10 on the road.
The Yellow Submarine are unbeaten in each of their last three Europa League away days – their most recent was a 1-1 draw at Napoli – and although goals have proven a problem throughout the season, odds of 37/40 (Bet365) on Villarreal with a +0.50 Asian Handicap start aren’t to be missed.
We’ll be paid out should Villarreal avoid defeat.
Sevilla v Basel | Thursday 20.05 | BT Sport
Double Europa League champions Sevilla can reignite their love affair with Europe’s secondary competition by booking their place in the quarter-finals with a convincing win over Basel.
Unai Emery's side were held to a 0-0 draw in Switzerland in the first leg after being thwarted by some fine saves from goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik, before Steven N'Zonzi was sent off late on.
Basel failed to capitalise on their brief man advantage – managing just one shot-on-target on home soil – and with the Spaniards chasing a record 11th consecutive home victory in the competition, a home win looks as likely as the prohibitively short odds on offer.
Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus have all been felled in Andalusia this season and Los Rojiblancos have now bagged an incredible 16 wins on the spin at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan recently – including 12 clean sheets, with 11 also being claimed by a margin of at least two goals.
Sevilla come into the game buoyed by their weekend win over top-four rivals Villarreal in La Liga, in which they came from 2-1 down to win 4-2 despite the red card issued to midfielder Ever Banega and look a tasty prospect off a -1 Asian Handicap start at 7/10 (BetVictor).
Visitors Basel are desperate to reach the Europa League final which is held at their St Jakob Park stadium this season, but the omens do not look good for Urs Fischer's side.
The Swiss outfit have not enjoyed their recent visits to Spain having lost 5-0 and 5-1 to Valencia and Real Madrid in their last two trips in 2014 and make the journey with a series of selection problems.
Philipp Degen is out and Michael Lang is a doubt, while Walter Samuel's ban leaves the Swiss Super League leaders facing a minor defensive crisis, as they look bounce back from a sloppy run of W1-D1-L2 in recent away games.
Fischer does welcome back starlet Breel Embolo to the group and it’s true too that Basel won all of their three group-stage fixtures on their travels but succeeding in Sevilla isn’t for the feint-hearted and I’m expecting a home triumph here.
With the -1 Asian Handicap, we’ll get our cash back should the hosts only win by a one-goal margin with a full profit claimed if Sevilla win by two goals or more. The only way in which our stake will be lost is if Basel avoid defeat.
Valencia v Athletic Bilbao – Aritz Aduriz to score at anytime (9/5 888)
Bayer Leverkusen v Villarreal – Villarreal +0.50 Asian Handicap (37/40 Bet365)
Sevilla v Basel – Sevilla -1 Asian Handicap (7/10 BetVictor)
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