EUROPEAN football fanatic Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) is heading to Switzerland for his next best bet from the continent.
Neuchatel Xamax v Thun | Sunday 31st March 2019, 15:00
Neuchatel Xamax have endured plenty of hard times over the past decade. The two-time Swiss champions were declared bankrupt in January 2012 with its Chechen owner Bulat Chagaev arrested and subsequently charged for criminal mismanagement, embezzlement of tax money, attempted fraud, and falsifying documents.
Xamax were immediately excluded from fulfilling their Super League fixtures and forced to disband with huge debts of over $20m. The club was reformed but required to begin its latest chapter in the Swiss amateur leagues, entering at the fifth tier of the country’s system for the beginning of the 2012/13 campaign.
Three successive promotions followed and after three further seasons in the second-tier, Xamax finally secured their berth back in the top-flight with a runaway title win in the Challenger League in 2017/18. Back in the big time after six years in exile, Neuchatel are desperate to preserve their Super League status, although it’s been a tough campaign.
Xamax’s coaching changes
Michel Decastel was sacked in early February having returned W2-D7-L10 across his opening 19 games of the 2018/19 season, results that left Xamax rock-bottom. Ex-Liverpool centre-half Stephane Henchoz was the surprise choice to takeover the hot-seat despite possessing little first-team coaching experience, and the gamble appeared to be paying off.
Henchoz’s “safety first” motto in a 3-1-4-2 guided the group to W3-D0-L3 and off the bottom of the table. It’s a relatively unglamorous game-plan, focussed upon direct, long balls in attack and minimal possession; Xamax focus on getting the ball into the box from wide areas whilst restricting their opponents to the flanks in defence. It’s agricultural but it was an improvement.
However, the club sprang a surprise last week when announcing Henchoz’s contract won’t be renewed in June and current U21 boss at Young Boys, Joel Magnin, will take charge of the side no matter which division the club will be playing in. Understandably, Henchoz hasn’t reacted well to the news, blasting the club’s president in the press.
So any positive on-field steps over the past eight weeks for Neuchatel could be expunged by the past week’s boat-rocking and means Sunday’s tricky showdown with Thun may prove pivotal in the club’s battle for survival and stability in the Super League.
Goals flow in Xamax encounters
Despite Henchoz’s new-look side preferring to take fewer risks, goals continue to reign supreme in Xamax matches. Four of the hosts’ six outings under Henchoz have featured at least three goals, whilst the strugglers have kept just two clean sheets since the opening day of the season.
Nevertheless, Neuchatel have notched in all bar five of their 25 encounters, including in 11 of 12 tussles at their Stade de la Maladiere base. Expected Goals (xG) data also points towards high-scoring contests, both before and after Henchoz’s arrival; the hosts’ games are averaging 3.16 xG under the former centre-half and 3.44 xG over the full campaign.
As hosts, Xamax have delivered 9/12 (75%) Over 2.5 Goals winners with half of those fixtures featuring four or more goals. Both sides have scored on 11 (92%) occasions with matches averaging 3.83 goals. The xG average is also a bulbous 3.16 per-game.
Thun can join the goals party
Thun look all set to seal a Europa League qualification place under Marc Schneider. The club from the Bernese Highlands have been tough home opposition but toiled a little too often on their travels to be considered close to leading lights Basel or Young Boys; the visitors have lost half of their 12 away days and recorded only four shutouts all season.
The guests have W2-D4-L1 since returning from the winter break, conceding in each outing and inexplicably giving up 1.72 xG per-game in that sequence. Clearly, Thun are struggling at the back and that’s been a constant issue on the road under Schneider with the away side silencing just five of their 29 hosts under his watch.
Even so, Thun still pack a punch of their own. The Oberlanders have scored in all 25 league games this season, firing only two blanks in 29 away during Schneider’s tutorship. A huge 21/25 (84%) of their encounters in the Super League this season have therefore seen Both Teams To Score bank, including 10/12 (83%) on their travels.
But it’s Over 2.75 Goals that’s piqued my interest at generous 3/4 (Matchbook) quotes. Thun have totalled three or more goals in 9/12 (75%) games as guests, with half of those showdowns also crossing the Over 3.5 Goals barrier – further back, 22/29 (76%) away days have seen this selection provide profit with all bar one match producing at least two goals.
Neuchatel Xamax v Thun – Over 2.75 Goals (3/4 Matchbook)