EUROPEAN football expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) picks out his favourite fancies from Thursday's early Europa League action.
AZ Alkmaar v Lyon | Thursday 18:00 | BT Sport Extra
AZ Alkmaar finished fourth in the Eredivisie last term and as we begin the business end of the 2016/17 campaign, the Cheeseheads are tucked in behind Holland’s big-three once more.
John van den Brom’s team suffered back-to-back league defeats before turning Heerenveen over on the road at the weekend, the side’s sixth success away from Alkmaar in Eredivisie duty (W6-D3-L3). In contrast, the hosts have claimed only three triumphs on home soil (W3-D5-L2).
UEFA Cup finalists in 1981, AZ made a slow start to their European travails this term collecting a sole point from a possible nine before claiming W2-D1-L0 in their final three fixtures against Dundalk, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Zenit to secure progression past the group-stages for the sixth occasion in nine appearances.
The Dutch outfit have been regular money-makers for goals-based punters this term and at their AFAS Stadion, AZ tend to be involved in plenty of high-scoring thrillers. And there’s enough evidence to suggest a play on Both Teams To Score is well worth backing at 13/17 (188BET) when Lyon arrive.
Alkmaar have silenced just one opposition side since mid-September in league action with 13 of those 16 fixtures featuring successful BTTS bets. At the AFAS Stadion, the Cheeseheads have leaked in 10 of their 13 outings this term, scoring in all bar one.
AZ’s three home games in the Europa League and five fixtures when hosting top-half teams in the Eredivisie have featured 32 goals at an average rate of 4.00 goals per-game – seven of the eight rewarded Both Teams To Score backers.
Lyon are in the midst of a rotten run of results. Les Gones’ weekend 2-1 defeat at Guingamp extinguished any lingering hope of a top-three finish in Ligue 1, meaning Europa League triumph is the team’s only realistic hope of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
Bruno Genesio’s now under serious pressure to arrest a slide that’s seen OL return W5-D2-L4 across all competitions and suffer four losses in six when counting only league form.
The visitors have shutout only three of their last 11 opposition sides and leaked at least one goal in 10 of their past 13 on the road. However, Lyon still pack plenty of final-third punch and have at least notched in 19 of their previous 21 matches dating back to mid-October’s reverse at Juventus.
Rostov v Sparta Prague | Thursday 18:00 | BT Sport Extra
Neither Rostov nor Sparta Prague have returned from their winter hibernation as yet, making Thursday night’s meeting a little trappy from a punting perspective. But odds of almost even-money (19/20 Bet365) on first leg home success for the Russians are a little too big to ignore.
The Selmashi are appearing in the spring phase of continental competition for the first time in their history with this midweek’s match-up their 11th of a long European adventure this term that started way back in July.
Ivan Daniliants’s group were handed a perilously tough Champions League pool alongside Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and PSV Eindhoven but Rostov performed with aplomb, particularly at their Olimp-2 Stadium home.
Having beaten Bayern, Atletico remain the only side to beat the Russians in their own backyard in the past 18 months (W21-D8-L1), keeping 16/30 clean sheets. The hosts have scored in 11 of their 14 home fixtures in 2016/17 and look a little underrated in the market.
Sparta Prague saw off Zenit 2-0 in a recent friendly during their training camp in Spain but the Czech contenders head to Rostov without Lukas Maravcek, Vaclav Kadlec, defensive trio David Hovorska, Ondrej Zahustel, and David Brezina plus left winger Martin Frydek.
The visitors made it to the quarter-finals last season but their away record in Europe this term reads W1-D1-L3, notching only two goals. Sparta fired in more than two shots on-target in only two of their six group-games and were out-shot 23-44 in shots attempted from inside the penalty box.
There’s a feeling the surprise factor of Tomas Pozar’s troops has dissipated since last season’s memorable campaign and I fancy Rostov to make their mark here.
Olympiakos v Osmanlispor | Thursday 18:00 | BT Sport
I’ve had little success siding with and opposing both Olympiakos and Osmanlıspor this season but I’m a glutton for punishment and can’t resist another bash at calling these two teams correctly.
Olympiakos might not be the force they once were, especially at their Piraeus home, but I can’t help but feel the Greeks should have little problem brushing aside a bang-average Osmanlıspor outfit on Thursday evening.
The hosts are on their way to another title triumph with their weekend 2-0 win over Larissa consolidating The Legend’s 13-point cushion atop of the Greek Super League (W16-D3-L1). Paulo Bento’s men have collected 31 points from a possible 33 when welcoming league opposition to the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium.
Olympiakos have fallen at the first springtime continental hurdle in the last four seasons and head into this contest having recorded maximum points in only one of their three Europa League group-stage games this term (W1-D1-L1). The Greeks will also be without suspended Manuel da Costa here.
However, Olympiakos won the shot count 57-25 (31-13 in the box) in those three games against APOEL Nicosia, Young Boys and Astana, recording an expected goals rate of 5.21 for to 2.63 against. It’s fair to say The Legend were the dominant force in all three outings.
The Greeks can call upon in-form striker Brown Ideye on Thursday too – the Nigerian has bagged 13 goals this season and eight of them have come in his 10 home appearances. But instead of backing Ideye to score, I’m getting on the 7/8 (Bet365) for Olympiakos to overcome a -0.75 Asian Handicap.
We’ll make money should The Legend take a first leg lead – we’ll pocket a half-stakes profit should the hosts win by exactly one goal with a full-stakes pay-out ensured if Olympiakos win by at least two goals. The home side have won 10 of their last 15 fixtures at the Georgios Karaiskakis by at least two goals.
Osmanlıspor have made a rotten start to their 2017 league exploits (W0-D1-L3) with the absence of Senegal's Badou Ndiaye at the Africa Cup of Nations and now Aminu Umar's injury causing head coach Mustafa Akcay plenty of problems.
The Turks’ are marooned in mid-table obscurity back home following their 1-0 defeat at home to Trabzonspor on Saturday, making it W3-D2-L6 from their last 11 games across all competitions.
Osmanlıspor’s form at their Ankara base in European competition has been fantastic in 2016/17 but defeats at Steaua Bucharest and FC Zurich are more reflective of their current condition than a rather fortune triumph at Villarreal where the visitors enjoyed just 14 touches in the Yellow Submarine penalty box.