The Europa League has been plain sailing so far for Arsenal and Chelsea and both Premier League clubs can give themselves vital breathing space with wins on Thursday.
Steven Gerrard’s Rangers are also threatening qualification for the knockout stages in the spring, but Glasgow rivals Celtic have quickly found themselves visitors to the last-chance saloon.
Arsenal to win and both teams to score @ 7/4
Arsenal made it three Europa League wins from three with a hard-working 1-0 success against Sporting Lisbon last time out, Danny Welbeck providing the goal late on. Afterwards Jose Peseiro admitted that his team could not cope with the Gunners’ additional quality in the second half, having enjoyed a decent opening period on their own patch.
On the evidence so far, these are the two strongest teams in Group E and, irrespective of the outcome at the Emirates, they should both make the knockout stage. That said, Unai Emery’s team are deservedly short-price favourites to maintain their perfect record in this competition – a tournament the former Sevilla boss knows only too well.
His side shipped two goals in their first home game and, with Arsenal’s desire to win, there should be some gaps for Sporting to exploit at times here. The Portuguese outfit are good enough to score, but Arsenal should have too much in the final third overall.
Emery, just like Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea, knows victory here will ensure progress with two games to spare. As the Premier League hurtles towards the hectic festive programme, being able to juggle his team for the remaining European commitments come early December is every bit as important as the three points here.
This has the potential to be entertaining and Arsenal, despite Emery’s changes this season that have shown they can be more rigid when needed, are still a good bet in such circumstances.
Chelsea to win to nil @ 11/10
Ruben Loftus-Cheek was the unlikely hat-trick hero as Chelsea swatted BATE Borisov aside at Stamford Bridge on matchday three, coming out 3-1 winners having barley broken sweat after netting two goals inside eight minutes of the start.
Aleksey Rios scored late on with what proved to be BATE’s sole attempt on the Chelsea goal in the entire 90 minutes. At the midway stage in Group L, it is clear the Blues are head and shoulders above their three rivals.
They’ve got nine points without extending themselves and can guarantee top spot if they win here and the other game ends in stalemate. It requires a big leap of faith to imagine that Chelsea won’t finish top in any case but, just like Arsenal, they’ll be keen to secure their passage early and effectively put this competition to one side until February.
BATE’s shortcomings have been evident so far. Their collapse at Stamford Bridge followed a home game against PAOK in which they found themselves three down inside 20 minutes. They’ll still fancy a shot at qualification, even should a second home defeat come their way here.
It doesn’t look likely for them, however. Chelsea may take their foot off the gas if they win here and this BATE team isn’t as strong as when they were giving out bloodied noses to Champions League opponents in recent years. Chelsea have the strength to see them off.
Spartak and Rangers to draw @ 51/20
Steven Gerrard must wish he could convince his Rangers side all their games were part of European competition. The trip to Moscow is their 12th game in continental competition already this season and they remain unbeaten, with five wins and six draws. That form is in comparison to a rather ropey domestic effort in Scotland.
Few would have suggested Rangers would top Group G at the halfway stage but that is just where they find themselves. An impressive away point in Villarreal was supplemented with a home win against Rapid Vienna, Gerrard’s side coming from behind to win 3-1 at Ibrox.
Last-time-out, the Glasgow side were held scoreless by Spartak in a game where the home side always looked more likely to breakthrough. A trip to the Russian capital in November is perhaps the toughest examination of Rangers’ credentials so far, and the home side are favourites to earn their maiden Europa League victory of this season.
Spartak are not firing on all cylinders, however, with only one win in five games of late and Rangers have displayed a genuine stubborn streak on their travels. Gerrard will be happy for his team to shut this game right down, with a point being a more than welcome outcome.
The odds go against them again but, not for the first time, Rangers can emerge with credit and a point that will give them a very real chance of qualifying for the last-32.
Celtic and Leipzig to draw @ 27/10
In contrast to Rangers, Scottish champions Celtic appear to be having a season to forget in Europe.
Brendan Rodgers failed to secure a Champions League berth for the first time as Hoops boss in the summer and the Europa League has proved little consolation after successive losses to the Red Bulls of Salzburg and Leipzig away from home.
Prior to that, Leigh Griffiths had netted a late winner in the opening game against Rosenborg in Glasgow, a game where the hosts really laboured and looked one-dimensional at times.
Odsonne Edouard has started to find some rhythm now and in recent weeks Celtic appear to have raised their levels, domestically at any rate.
Home advantage is always a boost for the Bhoys and it shouldn’t be underestimated going into this Parkhead encounter. Leipzig are set to arrive with a record number of travelling fans and it promises to be a carnival atmosphere. Hopes of progression for Rodgers and his team rest squarely on getting three points from this game ahead of a trip to Norway next.
Boosted by a vociferous support, Celtic will raise their game and give this a strong push but Leipzig have enough quality to inflict damage of their own, as they demonstrated by scoring seven goals in three games so far (compared to Celtic’s two). The Germans would be happy with a point here and can claim at least that reward.
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