EUROPEAN football expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) picks out his favourite fancies from Thursday's Europa League action.
Qarabag v Fiorentina | Thursday 16:00 | BT Sport 2
Fiorentina thumped Qarabag 5-1 when these two sides met on matchday two in Florence but it’s fair to say the tide turned on the 30th minute red card of visiting centre-half Elvin Yunuszade. La Viola notched three goals before the half-time break and ran out comfortable winners.
The Azeri’s lost the shot count 21-9 overall but even that didn’t quite reflect the opportunities carved out by the Serie A side; the expected goals return for the match read 5.56–0.41 – a more accurate reflection on proceedings.
The comprehensive victory put Paolo Sousa’s side in the driving seat for qualification from Group J but the pool leaders haven’t convincingly taken off since. Fiorentina’s W6-D3-L3 record from their past 12 outings appears solid enough but Thursday night’s travellers have toiled.
Sunday’s 2-1 success over Palermo wasn’t as comfortable as it should have been for La Viola despite their obvious dominance and a 4-2 reverse at Inter Milan 10 days ago saw Sousa’s men fall three goals behind inside the opening 20 minutes.
But most alarming was the 3-2 defeat at home to PAOK in Fiorentina’s last Europa League encounter. Again, the Italians enjoyed the lion’s share of the opportunities but atrocious defensive collapses and wayward finishing contributed to a disappointing result.
Sousa’s a man under the spotlight in Florence and although his team require just a point to rubber-stamp top spot in the group, I wouldn’t be chucking my money on La Viola to deliver a winning result in Azerbaijan.
Temperatures won’t be much above freezing at kick-off time in Baku and whilst Fiorentina have failed to significantly build on their big win against Qarabag in September, the hosts most certainly have.
The Horseman know three points would secure progression and responded to their chastening reverse in Italy by recording W9-D0-L2 across all competitions, keeping eight clean sheets. Both losses came away from home with Gurban Gurbanov’s group even turning over title rivals Qabala last week.
Qarabag supplanted Qabala at the top of the tree domestically and have lost once since February 2015 on home soil. That loss came against Spurs (0-1) in the Europa League and in all continental efforts since 2014, the Horseman have W7-D8-L2 as hosts, shipping only eight goals
. The Azeri’s have faced 61 shots in their first five group fixtures – 21 of which were conceded in the reverse. Exclude that encounter and their expected goals against reads only 4.75 with only 16 shots arriving from inside their own penalty box.
Qarabag are accustomed to playing the role of underdog and I like the 7/9 (BetVictor) on offer for the home with a +0.25 start on the Asian Handicap line – we’ll make money should the Horseman avoid defeat.
Maccabi Tel Aviv v Dundalk | Thursday 18:00 | BT Sport ESPN
Dundalk became the first ever Irish side to win a match in the group stages of European competition when overcoming Maccabi Tel Aviv 1-0 in Dublin back in September and the Lilywhites are desperate to do the double over the Israelis.
Victory or a score draw will prove good enough to secure progression to the knockout stages of the Europa League should AZ Alkmaar fail to see off already qualified Zenit St Petersburg in Holland.
Both Dundalk and Maccabi are level on four points ahead of their meeting in Tel Aviv where the temperature is set to be balmy 16 Celsius come kick-off time.
Stephen Kenny's visitors concluded their domestic campaign in early November and have turned to friendly opposition to prepare them for one last shot at glory in Group D. The Irish champions have played over 50 matches since March but the boss insists his squad is ready and primed for one last hurrah in 2016.
Dundalk have excelled themselves on the European stage, scoring in four of their five fixtures and returning shot ratio figures above the 36% mark. They’re not ground-breaking stats but they’re still remarkable when documenting where this side has come from.
The travellers have been handed a major boost by the return to full fitness of captain Stephen O'Donnell, Chris Shields is also back in the fray whilst defender Andy Boyle is likely to play his last game for the club with a move to Championship side Preston believed to be close.
If the Irish outfit arrive fresh, composed and motivated, Maccabi are in the doldrums. Shota Arveladze's hanging onto his role and another negative result here is likely to see the ex-Georgian striker relieved of his duties.
Maccabi began their Europa League journey at the very first qualifying round but following their shock 1-0 loss in Ireland 10 weeks ago, the Israelis have won just three of their last 11, failing to even score on eight occasions including each of their last four outings.
Including qualifiers, the hosts have kept a solitary shutout in 11 games in this competition and having shipped eight goals in their five group games already, I’m more than happy to scoop up the 4/5 available from Sportingbet on Dundalk scoring Over 0.5 Goals at the Netanya Stadium.
Maccabi haven't scored in their last four home dates and if they do succeed in a slice of revenge against Dundalk, I remain unconvinced they’ll do it convincingly. Therefore, I’ll add Dundalk +1.25 to the mix on the Asian Handicap line.
Maccabi haven’t won a Europa League group game by two or more goals for three years and not beaten any opposition by that margin since September. We’ll make money should Dundalk win, draw or lose by a solitary strike.
Feyenoord v Fenerbahce | Thursday 18:00 | BT Sport Extra
Feyenoord need to beat Group A leaders Fenerbahce by two or more goals to secure knockout qualification with Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s outfit desperate to overturn a 1-0 defeat they suffered in Istanbul two months ago.
The Eredivisie team have won five of their last six games at De Kuip in this competition since 2014/15, including overcoming Manchester United and Sevilla, keeping four clean sheets along the way.
Looking purely at domestic encounters, Feyenoord have claimed W10-D3-L0 at home since the end of last season and the Dutch club’s supporters will do their utmost to roar their heroes on to a famous result on Thursday night.
But I’m not going to be backing Feyenoord to succeed. Instead, I’m looking towards the Both Teams To Score market (4/6 10BET).
Van Bronckhorst’s charges are desperate for a two-goal victory and should come out all guns blazing. They might have managed only three goals in five Europa League games thus far but Feyenoord have only fired blanks twice in 36 home outings since April 2014.
Visiting coach Dick Advocaat, who last spring worked successfully as an adviser to Van Bronckhorst, knows a point or even a defeat by one goal would be enough for Fenerbahce to progress should relish their role on the counter-attack.
The Turks have won all three of their home games but could only draw at Zorya and were thumped 4-1 at Manchester United in their two away days. Fener have therefore W2-D2-L3 in their past seven European trips but notched at least once in all seven.
Fenerbahce have scored in in all but three of their 23 matches in all competitions this season and were much the better in their weekend derby dust-up with Besiktas. They should be capable of taking advantage of a Feyenoord side hell-bent on pushing forward for goals.
Qarabag v Fiorentina – Qarabag +0.25 Asian Handicap (7/9 BetVictor)
Maccabi Tel Aviv v Dundalk – Dundalk to score Over 0.5 Goals (4/5 Sportingbet)
Maccabi Tel Aviv v Dundalk – Dundalk +1.25 Asian Handicap (9/10 Bet365)
Feyenoord v Fenerbahce – Both Teams To Score (4/6 10BET)