Real Betis v Dudelange | Thursday 4th October 2018, 17:55 | BT Sport
Back-to-back La Liga wins over Leganes and Girona have seen Real Betis rise into fifth in Spain almost unannounced. Head coach Quique Setien described the latter success as “very important” as Los Verdiblancos’ positive performances have begun to be rewarded with points on the table.
The Seville-based club finished 2017/18 with a flourish to claim a Europa League berth and Setien’s swashbuckling side were tipped amongst the leading candidates for potential continental qualification once more in 2018/19.
However, an opening day defeat to Levante put the Andalusians on the back foot. A 1-0 derby success over bitter rivals Sevilla was their only taste of victory, as well as their only goal, in their opening four encounters but Betis have found their feet of late and should have few issues brushing aside Dudelange.
The hosts returned W9-D4-L1 when welcoming La Liga teams outside of La Liga’s top-six last season and come into this contest having recorded six clean sheets in their past seven. Go back to March and Los Verdiblancos have now silenced 12 of their past 18 opponents.
Only Getafe and Villarreal have faced more shots on-target domestically as Setien’s preferred 3-5-2 offers balance and control, a significant upgrade on what was quite a chaotic first six months in charge. The addition of Marc Bartra has worked wonders, while Zou Feddal and Sidnei have also slotted in seamlessly.
Like Betis, Luxembourg football is also in a good place. The national side have made steady progress and now F91 Dudelange became the first club from the landlocked country to reach the main stage of European competition since 1995.
Dudelange defeated Legia Warsaw in the third qualifying round, and then beat Cluj 5-2 on aggregate in the play-offs in August to seal their place in a mouthwatering pool alongside AC Milan, Olympiakos and Thursday’s hosts Betis.
Several of the team are still semi-professional and the club had to swiftly contact eight of their employers to secure full-time release for the frantic months ahead. Aside from the players and coaches, F91’s two full-timers are a groundsman and a laundry worker.
The boys from the Bourg are largely amateur although well-coached by attack-minded 37-year-old Dino Toppmoller, son of the ex-Bayer Leverkusen manager Klaus. Even so, their opener saw Dudelange compete valiantly with Milan before succumbing to a 1-0 defeat. A similar showing is expected in Seville.
Against the Rossoneri, F91 lost the shot count 4-17, managed only two efforts from inside the Milan penalty area and landed a solitary strike on-target. Considering Betis’ excellent defensive improvements in 2018, I’m happy to support the home side to win this contest without conceding at 31/40 (BetVictor).
Zenit St Petersburg v Slavia Prague | Thursday 4th October 2018, 17:55 | BT Sport
Zenit finished fifth in the Russian Premier League last term under Roberto Mancini – the first time the Lions concluded a top-flight campaign outside the first three for a decade. Unsurprisingly, Mancini was jettisoned and Sergey Semak took charge, Zenit’s first permanent Russian boss in over 10 years.
With an expensive and bloated squad, transfer business was limited but at least the St Petersburg club were able to welcome back Artem Dzybua back into the frame following his loan spell. The national team hero has already notched eight goals in 10 club appearances this term to become an integral part of the side.
The early signs suggest Semak has the tools to mount a major domestic challenge although performances on the road in Europe will need improving. Zenit were thumped 4-0 at Dinamo Minsk in the qualifying rounds, and were also beaten away at Molde. Thankfully, their home form has held up.
The Lions have lost only three games as hosts over the past 12 months and come into this contest as domestic league leaders with an excellent W7-D2-L0 return. Zenit have recorded five clean sheets, and scored at least twice in five of those opening nine outings, whilst also dominating the performance data metrics.
Their form in continental showdowns in St Petersburg also deserves great credit. Since 2015, the home side have W13-D2-L1 here in Europa League encounters and they should have enough in their locker to justify odds of 4/5 (Bet365) on Thursday evening.
Slavia Prague lead the way in the Czech Republic (W8-D0-L2) and started with a convincing and deserved 1-0 home success over Bordeaux. However, one away triumph in the group-stages of European competition since 2006 suggests the visitors tend to be outclassed when forced to travel.
The 2017/18 Czech runners-up managed a sole success at top-half teams domestically last term, and that came at the eighth-placed outfit Teplice on the final day of the campaign.