THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE returns on Tuesday night. Here Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) picks out his favourite fancies from the coupon.
Olympiakos v Barcelona | Tuesday 31st October 2017, 19:45 | BT Sport
Barcelona won a brilliant Saturday night showdown with Athletic Bilbao to keep their near-perfect record this season. The Catalans claimed a 2-0 triumph at San Mames to cement their position at the top of the tree in Spain whilst moving eight points clear of bitter rivals Real Madrid.
The Blaugrana have now bagged W13-D1-L0 across all competitions since their Spanish Super Cup embarrassment against Los Blancos back in August with Lionel Messi as outstanding as ever in his floating role behind Luis Suarez in Barca’s new-look 4-2-3-1 formation under Ernesto Valverde.
Messi’s playing a more central position, closer to the opposition goal, and the Argentine is on course for one of his most prolific campaigns of his career. Crucially, the club now boast more depth across midfield and full-back positions and the relaxation of out-and-out wingers has aided the world’s greatest.
He’ll be chief orchestrator on Tuesday night as Barcelona look to preserve their position at the top of the pool with a positive result in Piraeus. Having won 16 of their past 19 Champions League group games, it would take a brave punter to oppose the La Liga leaders.
But it’s worth noting, Andres Iniesta remains absent whilst Gerard Pique is suspended. With Javier Mascherano suffering from illness, Thomas Vermaelen might be drafted in for a rare appearance and Barca may operate in a more conservative manner to cover such a scenario.
Either way, despite their obvious dominance under Valverde thus far, the visitors haven’t been running up regular cricket scores this season. Indeed, the Catalans have scored more than three goals on just two occasions with three of their 14 fixtures featuring Under 3.5 Goals.
It’s been a similar story on the continent for some time. Barcelona overcame Sporting Lisbon 1-0 in their only other road trip this term and the Blaugrana haven’t bagged more than two goals in any of their last 11 games as guests in the Champions League.
Such trends make the 5/4 available from Betway on Barcelona to succeed in a match producing no more than three goals a very appetising angle to take.
Olympiakos are enduring their worst start to a campaign domestically for over 30 years following a disastrous derby defeat to rivals Panathinaikos at the weekend. The hosts are now fourth in Greece having pocketed only four victories from their first nine matches.
The Red & Whites are pointless in the pool and have been beaten in half of their 12 tussles across all competitions since September’s international break with their regression from Greek kings to current strugglers enough to relieve Besnik Hasi of his duties barely a month into the season.
Former coach Takis Lemonis returned only four months after parting ways with the club and he’ll hope to improve a poor recent record. Olympiakos – traditionally tough operators on their own patch – have managed a sole success in four home group games and that arrived against whipping boys Dinamo Zagreb with a last-minute goal in 2016/17.
Basel v CSKA Moscow | Tuesday 31st October 2017, 19:45 | BT Sport
Basel romped to their eighth straight domestic title last term but entered a period of transition this summer with the club looking to take a new approach. Popular chairman Bernhard Heusler, head coach Urs Fischer, retired captain Matias Delgado, top scorer Seydou Doumbia and key striker Marc Janko all left.
Incoming president Bernhard Burgener said he’s keen to ‘give Basel back to Basel’ and that’s meant a raft of former players being given roles on the board whilst Raphael Wicky was moved up from the U21s to replace Fischer in the coaching hot-seat with the remit of promoting youngsters.
Unsurprisingly, results were mixed in the early stanza. Across all competitions the RotBlau W6-D2-L4 over their first 12 outings whilst in Super League action they trailed table-toppers Young Boys by six points. Basel lost only twice in 2016/17 league duty but were beaten in three of their first seven this term.
A 3-0 defeat at Manchester United in their Champions League opener but Wicky’s troops on the back foot but things have started to fall into place of late. Perhaps inspired by a stunning 5-0 success over Benfica at St. Jakob-Park, the Swiss champions have gone from strength-to-strength.
A wonderful 2-0 triumph at CSKA Moscow in the reverse meeting a fortnight ago – were Basel limited the Russians to zero shots on-target and only two attempts from inside the penalty box – means the hosts can all but assure their passage to the Last 16 with a third successive Champions League success.
The RotBlau have lost just one of their last 19 competitive games at St. Jakob-Park and boast a reasonable W5-D4-L3 return when welcoming Champions League opposition here. Wicky’s charges have only failed to score once in their last 10 Champions League ties.
Domestically their form has improved recently as they’ve climbed to second on the back of a run of eight games without defeat. Considering Basel have been beaten on only three occasions as hosts since May 2016 – Arsenal and PSG two of those teams – you’d want them onside here.
I’m a touch tentative to supporting odds-on quotes but I’m happy to sink my teeth into the 6/5 (Betfair) for Basel to secure victory in a match featuring Over 1.5 Goals – you’re essentially backing the Swiss side to win by any score other than 1-0.
Realistically, CSKA Moscow cannot lose if they are to have any hope of qualification for knockout stages and probably need to win. However, having suffered defeats in 12 of their last 18 away trips in this competition (including qualifiers), I hold out little hope.
However, the Army boys have found the back of the net in 13 of those games and new boss Viktor Goncharenko is known to be a more attack-minded man in charge compared to Leonid Slutsky. Not that you’d know on recent evidence.
The visitors have won just one of their last eight games in all competitions and scored only twice in their last seven outings. But the return of chief playmaker Alan Dzagoev should boost their attacking output with Mario Fernandes and Kirill Nababkin known to enjoy venturing forward from full-back.
CSKA did win away in Benfica on matchday one, their sole success in 13 away group games (W1-D4-L8) but they enjoyed just 27% possession in that encounter and were convincingly beaten on xG having faced 24 efforts from their Portuguese opponents.
It’s now no clean sheets in 31 Champions League matches and zero for goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev in 41 group-stage games and I’m holding out little hope that a defence centered around ageing twin brothers Vasili and Aleksai Berezutski will be capable of coping with a confident Basel side.