The Europa League group stage gets underway on Thursday evening with four British teams involved and there will be mixed emotions amongst them.
For Arsenal and Chelsea, failing to get their Champions League allowance is a big knock. Celtic meanwhile spurned their invite to the top table when they fell in the qualifiers but their city rivals Rangers will be delighted to have a group stage campaign ahead under new boss Steven Gerrard.
Mixed feelings then, and, it seems, a good chance of mixed fortunes on Matchday One.
Chelsea to beat PAOK @ 10/13
Blues boss Maurizio Sarri has made a perfect start domestically with five Premier League wins from five so far. He takes his side to Greece where they meet a PAOK outfit that has also made a 100 per-cent start to their domestic campaign.
Sarri is very likely to ring the changes for this game but even a Chelsea second-string can prove too strong. The London club won the Europa League this last time they were in it and Sarri will be keen to secure a knockout stage berth as quickly as possible by taking control of Group L.
Chelsea have never lost to Greek opponents and PAOK, embarrassed 4-1 at home in the Champions League play-off round by Benfica last month, look to be facing a stiff task. The hosts did well to eliminate Basel from the Champions League qualifiers but with the possession based strategy of their latest Italian boss, Chelsea can stifle their aspirations here.
If changes are made, Sarri will be calling on Blues fringe players with a desire to impress. They should do enough to start with a win, though it might be a slender margin.
Arsenal to win both halves @ 10/11
In Unai Emery, Arsenal have got the man for the Europa League. That might be a slight in some quarters but winning this competition three years on the spin with Sevilla was no mean feat.
Emery, and the Gunners, will of course have their minds set on being amongst Europe’s elite next term but doing well in the Europa League should be a goal this season – given it does hold a golden ticket for next year’s Champions League.
Vorskla are deemed highly unlikely to trouble Arsenal at the Emirates in this opening game, with the home side 1/10 to get the win.
The Ukrainians have failed to score in four of their last five away games in the Europa League and have only one win from their last ten in the competition. Playing at home against inferior opponents, this is the sort of game where Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mesut Ozil and the Gunners’ other attacking talents should thrive.
They are fancied for a routine win and, with the visitors likely to yield no goals, should win both halves. At 9/4 in the handicap -3 goals, Arsenal are deemed very likely to run away with this game.
Half-time draw / Celtic full-time @ 3/1
Celtic and Rosenborg know each other inside out at this stage. This will be their fifth meeting in a little over a year, having twice met in Champions League qualifiers.
The Scottish champions came through both ties and are unbeaten in those four games. There were two scoreless draws, a 1-0 Celtic win in Trondheim and, this summer, a come-from-behind 3-1 success for Brendan Rodgers’ team in Glasgow.
Celtic are on a relatively poor run of form having won only four of their last nine competitive starts. The Hoops are not firing in front of goal, failing to make the most of their possession. It is something Rodgers has talked about leading into this game.
He wants more from his team, back to front, in terms of their attacking guile but the Celtic boss has also stressed he expects a compact and defensive Rosenborg to pitch up at Parkhead.
Rosenborg have found their stride since sacking their manager before that summer trip to Scotland. Dutch manager Rini Coolen has engineered seven successive wins, with nine out of ten since he took over.
They will make life tough for the Bhoys, who are strong favourites to win this game. On recent form, Celtic look a shaky proposition at odd of 5/11 to win. More value lies in backing the home side to work hard for their success, with a half-time draw, full-time Celtic win the advised bet.
Villarreal to win and under 2.5 goals @ 2/1
Gerrard’s reward for steering Rangers through a myriad of summer qualifiers to reach this group stage is a section that wouldn’t look out of place in the Champions League.
They go first to Spain to visit perennial European contenders Villarreal, with Spartak Moscow and Rapid Vienna ahead in their Group G journey. It really couldn’t have been much tough on Gerrard’s side.
Even accounting for the fact Villarreal have managed just a single win from four games so far in La Liga, it is hard to imagine Rangers getting out of El Madrigal unscathed.
They earned that first win over Leganes at the weekend and will be eager to build on it here. The Yellow Submarine have been excellent in recent Europa League group stages and can call on the likes of Santi Cazorla and Pablo Fornals to come in for this game.
The modus operandi for Gerrard so far in Europe – home and away – has been to set up his Rangers side to be resolute and hard to break down. It has worked to this point. In eight qualifying games, they’ve conceded only three goals (excluding a 3-1 home success against Maribor, they’ve scored just five goals in seven games).
This isn’t likely to be a high scoring affair. The biggest problem for the Scottish side will be the absence Alfredo Morelos, one of two players sent off against FC UFA in the final qualifying game.
That absent goal threat is a big handicap for the former Liverpool and England captain in his first game as a manager at this level of European football.
Villarreal are vastly experienced at this level and can squeeze out a win, but it likely won’t come easy against a Rangers side that won’t give them an inch.
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