The Europa League returns this week with its usual promise of excitement, gusto and goals aplenty. Fingers crossed the scoreless encounter between Red Star Belgrade and CSKA Moscow on Tuesday evening wasn’t a sign of things to come!
There are just two British sides left amongst the 32 still standing, with Arsenal and Celtic seemingly having been dealt contrasting hands in the first knockout stage.
The Gunners, having slipped a widening margin behind the top four in the Premier League, may have to place all their eggs into this basket as the spring progresses if their desire is to be back playing in the Champions League next season.
Arsene Wenger’s side go into the last-32 as 11/2 second-favourites for the tournament behind Atletico Madrid. That really isn’t an appealing price given their recent trials and tribulations on the road domestically.
Adding to their woes, star striker Alexandre Lacazette is set to miss up to six weeks after knee surgery, while January signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang isn’t eligible to play. There are simply too many capable sides that will take advantage of the Gunners’ leaky defence to have an interest in them winning outright.
Arsenal will take on Swedish outfit Oestersunds away from home on Thursday evening. Their opponents came into existence in the same year Arsene Wenger became manager of the Gunners, showing the disparity of history and European pedigree.
The Swedes have been on their winter break leading into this tie, so it should be a straightforward passage for the English club.
That said, with Lacazette out, Olivier Giroud gone to Chelsea and Aubameyang not eligible; it won’t be a cakewalk in the first leg.
With Arsenal odds-on to win the game, the suggestion here is an Arsenal win with under 3.5 goals in the match at a more appealing price of 11/10.
If Arsenal are facing an increasingly desperate bid to win this tournament, then Celtic’s presence in the last-32 is already a satisfactory result for Brendan Rodgers and the Scottish champions.
The stated aim in August when their Champions League group gave them Paris St-Germain and Bayern Munich was to preserve their European involvement beyond the New Year and Celtic achieved that courtesy of a 3-0 win over Anderlecht in September that eventually bought them third place in the group.
Worryingly, the Hoops lost all three home group games and they’ve been paired with a more than useful opponent in Zenit St Petersburg now.
The Russians were the leading goalscorers in the group stage, scoring 17 times in six games, and that is a worry for a Celtic rearguard that is often prone to being caught out at this level.
Rodgers has some injury worries over key defenders going into Thursday’s game, while regular goalkeeper Craig Gordon is certain to miss out.
Their Parkhead home was once a beacon of Celtic’s resistance against Europe’s finest but the veil has slipped somewhat since the early 2000’s. Getting a positive result to take to Russia is surely crucial for Celtic and they will hope to catch Zenit, without a competitive game in 2018 so far, cold.
Even should that happen, a clean sheet seems unlikely and both teams to score at 20/29 looks the safe play for this Glasgow clash.
The danger in the Europa League match betting is often trying to account for team selection and where this competition sits in the pecking order for the clubs involved.
The likes of Zenit and Celtic seem very likely to have this competition as a high priority, but Napoli are the perfect example of a club with a dilemma.
To lift this trophy they’ll need to navigate another nine games. That is a hefty burden for a club also embroiled in a tit-for-tat title battle with Juventus in Serie A. Napoli’s preference would surely be a first Italian title in 28 years.
They start with a tough tie against German side Leipzig. The Bundesliga team are not strong on the road, but they’ve got a real chance to come home from Naples with a positive outcome, especially should the home side ring the changes. The draw is 49/20 and that is worth taking.
Another Bundesliga/Serie A showdown sees Atalanta go to the Westfalenstadion as they face Borussia Dortmund in their first leg.
Dortmund, like Celtic, didn’t get the best of draws in the Champions League as they locked horns with Real Madrid and Tottenham. They’ve also lost the aforementioned Aubameyang to Arsenal in the January window, though they did pick up Michy Batshuayi from Chelsea to compensate.
Atalanta have lost only three of their last 16 matches in all competitions and will present a real test for a Dortmund side that is plainly a couple of levels below where they were a few short years ago.
The Italians topped their group but the form of that is questionable. Lyon are no world beaters, while Everton simply imploded in this competition.
Dortmund have steadied their ship since Peter Stoger took over and the imposing atmosphere at the Westfalenstadion on a European night can help them to a first leg success at 4/5.
The tournament favourites at 7/2 are Atletico Madrid, with Diego Simeone’s side having been unfortunate to finish third in a tough Champions League group with Chelsea and Roma.
Having twice reached the Champions League final in recent seasons, Atletico have the pedigree to go all the way in this competition.
Prior to Man United winning back in May, this trophy had been raised five times in seven seasons by Spanish clubs. Undoubtedly, it is a competition that is treated with a healthy respect by its La Liga representatives.
Expect to see Atleti going deep into the knockout stages and they can begin their journey with a win over Copenhagen in Denmark.
Copenhagen have failed in 10 previous attempts to register a win against Spanish opposition and with Madrid having kept three successive clean sheets lately, they face a tough task here.
The Danes didn’t concede in their three group stage home games and will likely be stubborn opponents. In truth, it could well be that this game is a slow burner, so the 3/1 available on the half-time draw/full-time Atletico Madrid win is the recommendation.
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