MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) picks out his favourite fancies from Thursday night’s Europa League qualifying coupon.
Astana v BATE Borisov | Thursday 15.00
BATE Borisov have reached the group-stage of the Champions League in four of the past five seasons but a 3-0 humbling at Dundalk in their last continental outing put paid to their 2016/17 hopes.
The Belarusians now enter the Europa League qualifying phase with an awkward tie in Kazakhstan to negotiate on Thursday afternoon.
BATE have W0-D6-L12 in their pas 18 European adventures and although the standard of opposition has been mostly superior to that of hosts Astana here, I’ve reason to believe they may find the going tough.
Astana have W4-D4-L0 in their last eight continental clashes in front of their home supporters, including games against Galatasaray, Benfica and Atletico Madrid in last season’s Champions League.
BATE have fired blanks at Dundalk (twice), Debrecen and Shakhtar Karagandy in the past three years and I’m keen to oppose them here.
At the prices on offer, I’m happy sticking a few quid on Astana at 29/20 (BetVictor).
Sonderjyske v Sparta Prague | Thursday 18.00 | BT Sport Extra
First legs of qualifying contests across European competition tend to be tight-ish affairs – 20 of 29 in the third Europa League qualifying round featured fewer than three goals but one side that went against the grain was Sonderjyske.
The Danes dispatched Zaglebie Lubin 2-1 away in Poland before picking up a 1-1 draw to continue their continual odyssey. The first leg encounter was the third occasion in four Europa League matches that Jakob Michelsen’s men were involved in a profitable Over 2.5 Goals selection.
It’s a market SE know very well. Under Michelsen’s watch, 23/38 (61%) of domestic league games have produced three or more goals whilst 22 have delivered in the Both Teams To Score column.
Across all competitions, 14 of Sonderjyske’s past 23 outings have beaten the Over 2.5 Goals barrier with 20 proving profitable in the Over 1.5 Goals. The Danes haven’t kept a clean sheet in 13 and so goals look likely on Thursday night.
Sparta Prague lost out to Steaua Bucharest in their Champions League qualification tie but the Czech giants thrilled Europa League fans en-route to a quarter-final exit last term.
Although winger Ladislav Krejci has left, Michel Kadlec has arrived and big things are expected of 21-year-old attacking midfield Ales Cermak this term. With Borek Dockal and David Lafata still in tow, Sparta have the brains, brawn and flair to play their part in an enjoyable encounter.
Fenerbahce v Grasshoppers | Thursday 19.00 | BT Sport Extra
It’s been another tumultuous few months at Fenerbahce. Having missed out on the Turkish Super Lig title to city rivals Besiktas, the Yellow Canaries kicked-off 2016/17 with a galling Champions League exit at the hands of Monaco.
That loss saw Vitor Pereira removed with Dick Advocaat parachuted into a rescue role as Fener’s latest head coach.
Pereira had tried to switch o a 3-5-2 formation but following the summer departures of full-backs Gokhan Gonul and Caner Erkin, the Istanbul giants struggled with the transition despite the arrivals of Gregory van der Wiel, Ismail Koybasi, Martin Skrtel and Roman Neustadter.
Defence was clearly an area the Turks felt they needed to strengthen and although the calibre of player arriving at the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium can’t be sniffed at, the Yellow Canaries could well continue to struggle with a lack of cohesion and familiarity at the back.
In theory, Fener should have more than enough to see off a Grasshoppers side that required extra-time to beat a second-tier domestic side in the cup at the weekend and one that’s W0-D1-L3 since their last success in late July.
Pierluigi Tami’s men have shipped 11 goals in those four fixtures but they have managed to net eight themselves. Indeed, in 30 away Swiss league matches under Tami, Grasshoppers have notched in all bar three and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see them pinch a goal here.
Ultimately, Fenerbahce should have more than enough muscle to take first leg honours so I’ll be bold and back the home win and Both Teams To Score at 37/19 (888).
Sassuolo v Red Star Belgrade | Thursday 19.45 | BT Sport Extra
Sassuolo are enjoying their first foray into European football and the Neroverdi look primed to reach the group-stage of the Europa League with a two-legged success over Serbian outfit Red Star.
The Italians finished as high as sixth in Serie A last season and eased into their continental debut with comfortable progress over Swiss side Luzern in their previous round, thanks to a 3-0 triumph at their Mapei Stadium home.
Eusebio Di Francesco’s men were beaten on just three occasions as hosts in 2015/16 and despite selling Nicola Sansone and Sime Vrsaljko in the summer, should still have the tools to dispatch their visitors with Domenico Beradi still leading the line.
Red Star lost headline act and creative lynchpin Marko Grujic to Liverpool in the off-season and haven’t reached the group-stage of European competition for eight years.
The Belgrade boys are a far cry from the side that claimed 1991 European Cup success and should be swatted aside. Sassuolo are 4/6 (Ladbrokes) to win.