IT’S quarter-final time in the Europa League so we asked European football expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) for his betting verdict on Thursday night’s first leg ties.
Athletic Bilbao v Sevilla | Thursday 20.05 | BT Sport 2
Three of the last eight sides standing in the Europa League are Spanish, seven of the past 12 competition winners are Spanish and 14 of the last 40 Champions League quarter-finalists are Spanish.
All of Spain’s European participants are alive and kicking in European competition bar Valencia – Los Che exited the Europa League in the last-16, beaten by a Spanish side, Athletic Bilbao.
If there’s any sort of debate about which of Europe’s top-five leagues is the strongest, the above should clear things up and put all speculation to bed – La Liga is king.
So two La Liga outfits cross swords in the quarter-finals and this last-eight encounter between Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla has taken on extra significance in the past three weeks with the duo dropping precious league points to fall off the pace in their top-four pursuit.
Spanish sides always take their continental commitments seriously but a fourth-placed finish on domestic duty now appearing beyond reach, Europa League glory appears there only opportunity of playing Champions League football next season. This two-legged tie means much, to both outfits.
Athletic have seen off Sevilla in each of the past five head-to-heads at San Mames but not since 2009’s Copa del Rey duels have the pair met in cup competition. And in La Liga, the pair are inseparable on 48 points; it’ll be a bout settled on similarly small margins.
Ernesto Valverde’s hosts tend to be awesome operators at their San Mames base and whilst a W5-D2-L0 return when welcoming European opposition encourages, it’s true too the Basques have W7-D6-L2 on home soil since December, a win-rate of 47%.
In Aritz Aduriz, Les Leones boast the competition’s top goalscorer (8) and the return of lively young forward Inaki Williams has given the offensive output an extra edge. However, the long-term injury to key centre-half Aymeric Laporte has hurt Bilbao’s dodgy defence; Athletic have silenced just two of their last 11 opponents and look vulnerable to conceding.
Sevilla saw their astonishing 17-match winning home streak ended by Real Sociedad on Sunday and it’s their Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan form that’s been Los Nervionenses’ saving grace this season. Incredibly, the visitors are winless in 20 La Liga and European away fixtures this term.
The Andalusians have W0-D9-L6 in league football and W0-D1-L4 on their continental travels. Unai Emery's men lost all three of their away Champions League ties before returning a 1-0 loss in Molde and a 0-0 draw in Basel after dropping down to Europa League duty.
But Emery’s become accustomed to negotiating knockout football, having guided Sevilla to back-to-back Europa League titles. And although the aforementioned results are worrisome for punters looking for a pro-Sevilla angle, there are crumbs of comfort.
Marco Andreolli is the visitors’ only injury absentee with Yevhen Konoplyanka expected to be given a starting berth on the flanks. The guest have suffered just four reverses in 23 (W13-D6-L4) and can also call upon an impressive strike-rate when visiting La Liga opposition since 2013/14.
The Andalusians have notched in 18/26 (69%) trips to top-half teams in recent seasons but their own unreliable back door – only 4/26 (15%) clean sheets – has ensured a strong 17/26 (65%) success rate for Both Teams To Score punters. Even 13 of Sevilla’s 14 head-to-heads with Barcelona and Real Madrid have proven profitable for BTTS backers.
I’ve already touched on Athletic’s haphazard clean sheet record and the fact Laporte is absent, but their own returns when hosting top-half La Liga clubs also pushes us towards a recommended Both Teams To Score play at 13/16 (888).
Les Leones have netted in 20/24 (83%) outings when welcoming Spain’s top-10 under Valverde, recording 7/24 (29%) shutouts and churning out 15/24 (63%) BTTS bets.
With the two teams landing successful Both Teams To Score selections in this spot above the 62% mark, the implied odds of a repeat are closer to 4/7 than the 13/16 offered, making it a strong value option.
Villarreal v Sparta Prague | Thursday 20.05 | BT Sport Extra
History and an increasingly worrisome injury list are against Sparta Prague on Thursday night.
Sparta are the first Czech side to reach the last-eight of European competition since 2002 but no club from this part of the planet has progressed from a quarter-final continental tie since 1996.
The Reds are making their first appearance at this stage of European competition since 1993 and they’ve not booked a semi-final place since 1973. So can the current team of trailblazers upset the odds?
Ordinarily I’d have been really keen to find a way of supporting Sparta here. Surprisingly, Zdenek Scasny’s side are still unbeaten in this season’s competition (W8-D4-L0) and have scored in all of their 14 continental clashes in 2015/16.
The Prague club are on a three-match winning streak on their Europa League travels – by an aggregate score of 9-1 – and produced a mesmerising performance to comprehensively beat Lazio 3-0 at the Stadio Olimpico in their last European outing.
The Czechs have scored more goals, attempted more shots, landed more shots-on-target, won more corners and enjoyed more possession in the competition than Villarreal and on paper, look mighty dangerous opponents for the La Liga outfit.
However, I just can’t ignore Sparta’s growing injury concerns and a highly erratic road record. Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at mid-table Slovacko was the Reds’ fifth away loss in 11 (W6-D0-L5) and left Scasny’s men nine points drift of league leaders Viktoria Plzen in their domestic title race,
And on Thursday, Sparta could be without as many as give of their first-choice XI. Captain Lukas Vacha, centre-half Mario Holek, veteran midfielder Petr Jiracek, Ondrej Zahustel and David Bicik are all rated major doubts or absent. Unfortunately, the Czechs just don’t boast the strength in-depth to ably replace any unavailable players.
Villarreal are just 11/20 (Boylesports) to take first leg honours and the Yellow Submarine are enjoying their best campaign since 2010/11, looking on course for a top-four finish and a return to the Champions League.
Marcelinho’s sculpted a side based on efficiency, organisation, defensive discipline and hard work and the results are easy to see. Villarreal are at their most threatening at their El Madrigal and since returning to the Spanish top-flight, the Yellow Submarine have recorded W32-D10-L12 when welcoming La Liga opposition.
Since May that return across all competitions reads W19-D3-L3 including 15/25 clean sheets. On Europa League duty, Marcelinho’s men have posted a 100% record in their five fixtures, all delivered ‘to nil’ with both Napoli (1-0) and Bayer Leverkusen (2-0) sent packing. Indeed, their last home outing saw the hosts pick up a point after being 2-0 down to Barcelona…
Like their guests, Villarreal do have a few injury concerns. Right-back Antonio Rukavina is suspended and Jonathan Dos Santos, Mateo Musacchio and Daniele Bonera are all out with Samu Castillejo and Juame Costa rated 50-50.
The defensive absences put me off the win ‘to nil’ approach so instead I’ll take the 13/14 (888) on Villarreal -1 on the Asian Handicap mark.
This selection sees our stake returned if the home side only manage a victory by a one-goal margin but we’ll be in profit should Villarreal win by two or more goals.
Seventeen of those aforementioned 32 home La Liga triumphs were by a margin of two goals or more and it’s an angle that provides us with a little more wriggleroom against a possible Prague offensive.
Braga v Shakhtar Donetsk | Thursday 20.05 | BT Sport Extra
Could be these two teams be arriving at this fixture in more contrasting form?
On Friday, Braga were obliterated 5-1 by table-topping Benfica, their worst defeat since 2010. It was the Archbishops’ third loss in five and leaves the Portuguese outfit looking vulnerable on Thursday.
The 2011 finalists have returned an impressive W4-D1-L0 in home Europa League ties this term and consolidated a fourth-placed position in the Primeira Liga thanks an impressive run of W10-D3-L0 across all competitions at their Estadio Municipal de Braga base.
But again, there are flaws and pitfalls to point out. Braga have recorded just a solitary shutout in 11 home Europa League ties and Paulo Fonseca's side were aided by some very favourable calls when dispatching Fenerbahce in the previous knockout round.
The hosts have Luiz Carlos suspended and are also without injured frontmen Rui Fonte and Crislan. Ahmed Hassan and Nikola Stojiljkovi are set to lead the attack in a 4-4-2 formation but I can’t help but feel the home side look a little flimsy.
Opponents Shakhtar showed their teeth on Friday, disembowelling Metalist 8-1 to make it six successes from eight in 2016, including W3-D1-L0 in continental action.
The Ukrainians were comfortable home and away victors over Anderlecht in the last-16 and produced a polished and impressive performance to see off Shakhtar 3-0 in Gelsenkirchen during last-32 action; the visitors shipped just one goal in four Europa League knockout ties this calendar year.
Shakhtar were given a painfully difficult Champions League group alongside PSG and Real Madrid but have recovered well since dropping into Europe’s secondary competition and cane come away with a positive result here.
Taison should overcome a knock to make the XI and although suspended duo Fred and Olexandr Kucher miss out, I still like the look of the 8/11 from BetVictor on Shakhtar with a +0.25 Asian Handicap start.
Backing this selection will see us take a half-stakes win should the game end in a draw and a full-stakes profit should the visitors take first leg honours. The only way in which we’ll end up out of pocket is if Braga pinch a win.
Athletic Bilbao v Sevilla – Both Teams To Score – 13/16 (888)
Villarreal v Sparta Prague – Villarreal -1 Asian Handicap (13/14 888)
Braga v Shakhtar Donetsk – Shakhtar Donetsk +0.25 Asian Handicap (8/11 BetVictor)
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