Slovacko v AIK (Conference League)
Slovacko dropped out of the Europa League qualifying last week with a 4-1 aggregate defeat at the hands of Fenerbahce, while AIK needed penalties to progress against stubborn North Macedonians Shkendija.
The home side’s domestic season has just got underway – after three matches, they sit two points off the top in 7th place. With only one win to their name, there are certainly improvements to be made, although they’ve faced fairly stiff competition so far. One win and two draws isn’t too shabby, with their only loss this season being a heavy 3-0 beating by Fenerbahce away from home, a team much stronger on paper. Slovacko have finished fourth in consecutive league seasons and are a solid contender for European qualification behind the Czech superpowers. They unfortunately lost their star striker Jurecka to giant Slavia Prague ahead of this season; he’s been replaced with veteran target man Libor Kozák who is yet to score. Instead, the goals have been spread around the team so far.
AIK’s season is nothing to write home about, struggling badly to control games and only scraping through by the skin of their teeth in previous rounds of this competition. In Allsvenskan they’ve only managed to win three of their last ten matches and are falling behind rivals at the top of the division – hardly title-winning form. In the two previous rounds of this qualifying, they’ve been handed a relatively kind draw – Ukrainian Vorskla followed by North Macedonian side Shkendija – but have been disappointing to say the least. The former were defeated by a ghost goal in extra time – replays showed it never crossed the line – and against Shkendija a penalty shootout was required to progress, with the Macedonians the better team in extra time. AIK’s attacking play is dismal at times, rarely committing enough bodies forward and lacking any real cohesion to sustain pressure, the only saving grace being a solid back three.
The Czech league is considered stronger than Allsvenskan – ranked 16th and 23rd respectively – and it’s highly likely AIK will stumble here against a tougher opponent than what they’ve faced in the previous rounds. Despite having just started their season, Slovacko should have enough about them to come out victorious in this match-up.
Molde vs Wolfsberger (Conference League)
A place in the Europa Conference League group stage is at stake here at the Aker Stadion. Molde were made to sweat a bit in the previous round. They won the first leg easily 3-0 vs Hungarian side Kisvarda but then fell behind 0-2 in the return match. A second half goal from midfielder Sivert Mannsverk eased any fears they had though, and they eventually prevailed 4-2 on aggregate. That defeat ended a run of 20 unbeaten games in all competitions for Molde. They have been in excellent form domestically and sit five points clear at the top of the Eliteserien table. Here in Europe, they have won both home legs 3-0 vs Kisvarda and 4-1 vs Elfsborg. On their own artificial pitch this place has become quite a stronghold. There are some doubts surrounding the fitness of defenders Martin Bjornbak and Kristoffer Haugen, but both could feature. The good news for Molde is that they have had a full seven days to prepare for this fixture because they didn’t have a league match at the weekend.
Austrian side Wolfsberger got past Maltese outfit Gzira United 4-0 on aggregate in the previous round. That was only after an embarrassing 0-0 draw at home in the first leg where they couldn’t even score a single goal as a heavy favourite. They warmed up for this match by losing 1-2 vs RB Salzburg at the weekend and they have yet to win in the league this season. Wolfsberger have suffered a 1-5 defeat vs LASK and have conceded 10 goals in their four league fixtures. Attackers Tai Baribo and Thorsten Rocher will offer the main threat in the final third of the field. Wolfsberger finished fourth last season in the Austrian Bundesliga which earned them a spot in the third round of Conference League qualifying. They reached the group stage of the 2019/20 Europa League so have enjoyed some recent success in European competition.
There is a strong case for backing over 2.5 goals in this match but Molde to win at 1.57 looks like the best bet. We are at the stage now where just taking any sort of advantage into the return leg can be worth its weight in gold. Teams are less inclined to put their foot on the gas and extend their lead. Sometimes sitting on what you have is the best option. Molde were only 1-0 up vs Kisvarda in the previous round at home with 10 mins left. On that occasion they added a couple more goals to win 3-0 but the same might not happen again. It would be a surprise if Molde didn’t at least win on the night at home, so this looks like the obvious selection.
Istanbul Basaksehir v Antwerp (Conference League)
Basaksehir finished fourth in the Turkish Süper Lig last season, sixteen points behind champions Trabzonspor. However, it kept Besiktas and Galatasaray behind them. Furthermore, the club has only had positive results recently. Since April, they have not lost a single match. In the Conference League they managed to win two preliminary rounds and on the restart of the Turkish league they took the three points convincingly: 4-0 against Kasimpasa.
Antwerp are the title favourites in Belgium after they significantly strengthened their core in the past transfer period. Under new coach Mark Van Bommel they easily eliminated Lillestrom in the previous preliminary round and after four match days they are alone on top of the Belgian league with the maximum of points.
On the last matchday, they pulled off small 0-1 win at Eupen. Antwerp plays well organised, but this is sometimes at the expense of created chances. Because of the busy schedule in the beginning of the season, Van Bommel is forced to give his players a rest now and then. For example, it is becoming a habit for Nainggollan to be substituted after 60 minutes, while Frey and Janssen alternate in the striker’s position. Fortunately, this season they can count on an excellent goalkeeper Butez, who has made some important saves in recent matches.
Both teams rely on the experience of slightly older players who have played in bigger leagues. On the one hand players like Stefano Okaka, Lucas Biglia and Mesut Özil for the home team, and on the other hand Toby Alderweireld, Radja Nainggolan and Vincent Janssen for the visitors. Worth mentioning though that Özil is yet to appear for his new side due to fitness issues and is unlikely to be involved here. Istanbul will have to make the pace at home, while Antwerp will avoid risks and want to close the game in the return match. Antwerp’s midfield with Nainggolan, Verstraete and Yusuf is defensive minded. In attack, the speed of young winger Balikwisha will be missed, who dropped out last weekend with a muscle injury. The referees tend to blow the whistle on fewer fouls in Europe than in the Belgian and Turkish leagues, so it could be a game where a lot of duels are fought. This will be at the expense of the chances created. Less than 2.5 goals is a reasonable bet
Vaduz v Rapid Vienna (Conference League)
Vaduz have become one of the sensations of this season’s qualification rounds after stunning Turkish club Konyaspor 5-3 on aggregate in the Third Qualifying Round and sit on the cusp of being the first-ever Liechtenstein club to reach a European group stage. In their way stand Rapid Vienna, a club who are no strangers to reaching the latter stages of European competition and who enter this round as heavy favourites to progress. Vaduz – who play their club football in Switzerland as a quirk of their geography – face-off against a club from neighbouring Austria for the first-ever time in European competition. Both clubs had an inauspicious weekend with Vaduz now sitting second from bottom in the Swiss second division after a 4-2 home defeat at the hands of FC Thun, Rapid also succumbed to a 2-1 defeat in their top-of-the-table clash against LASK on Sunday afternoon. Vaduz’s only absences are midfielder Sandro Wieser and defender Fuad Rahimi, otherwise they’ll be able to pick the same starting line-up that shocked Konya. Rapid picked up three injuries in their epic extra-time win over Neftchi Baku with Yusuf Demir, Maxi Hofmann and Patrick Greil all in a race against time to be available.
Nonetheless, Rapid can be buoyed that the hero against Neftchi, Ferdy Druijf has picked up more minutes, Guido Burgstaller is in scoring form and winger Marco Grüll has already netted three times this season. With Rapid fans travelling en masse across the border, it’ll feel like the Allianz Stadion in Liechtenstein and, surely, a bridge too far for Vaduz’s fairytale run.
HJK v Silkeborg (Europa League)
HJK’s progression in the Europa League was sealed last week with a relatively comfortable 1-0 victory against a Maribor side who tried to make life difficult with some theatrics and tough tackling. The goal came from Santeri Hostikka but again David Browne stepped up with a fine wing-back display.
In guaranteeing at least some group stage football again, there is an air of relaxation ahead of this tie against a Silkeborg side who have started well in the Danish league but lost their last fixture. Meanwhile, HJK have had a full week to prepare as their league match with Lahti was brought forward to maximise their recovery. But in their absence, they have slipped to third place in the Veikkausliiga table behind KuPS and Honka.
The side are still suffering from an extensive injury list but the loan of Lucas Lingman has brought much needed guile and midfield threat. His evolution since leaving Finland has been swift, becoming an important Finland international and looking far more confident. His form is vital if HJK are to go into the second leg with any kind of advantage, but he is still mainly a provider and will rely on either Bojan Radulovic to continue his decent 2022, or Abubakari Malik to finally make his mark with now seven goalless games since his debut goal.
The heavy loss Plzen in the Champions League appears to have provided a necessary reminder of how to play in Europe and this new caution will be vital as long as goalkeeper Conor Hazard stays sharp.
West Ham United v Viborg FF (Conference League)
West Ham United take on Danish minors Viborg FF in the Conference League qualification at the London Stadium. The home side enters the match as huge favourites, and anything but a certain victory will be a huge failure. Viborg can play without pressure though, and the Danes will be well supported with a large group of travelling fans in the stands.
West Ham are without manager David Moyes on the sideline. He is suspended after being sent off against Eintracht Frankfurt last season. This makes what is already a bad situation at the Hammers worse. West Ham have lost their first two Premier League games this season, and they badly need a shot of confidence soon. The performance against newly promoted Nottingham Forest last week was borderline disgraceful, and they need to improve soon to stay out of domestic trouble.
Viborg are in a quite different situation. The Greens from Denmark are in excellent form these days and are currently fifth in the Superliga with nine points in their first five games. Last week, they delivered one of the best performances of the season when they defeated Silkeborg 2-0 at home, and it was their 7th victory in nine games.
Unfortunately for Viborg, their two offensive aces, Ibrahim Said and Alassana Jatta are unavailable for this match as they couldn’t get visa for entry to the United Kingdom. West Ham need to go out and get a victory. They are at home, and have to impress their fans. This is a big match for Viborg, but there should be a big difference in the level of the two teams. We recommend betting on both teams not to score at odds 1.6 at Betfair Sportsbook.
AZ Alkmaar v Gil Vicente (Conference League)
AZ Alkmaar ended the 2021/22 season with a 6-1 win against Vitesse to secure European qualification for the upcoming season – whilst Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord and Twente secured automatic qualification, the next four ranking teams competed in a knockout competition with AZ losing 3-2 to Heerenveen and winning 2-0 in the second leg, before losing 2-1 in the first leg vs Vitesse and bouncing back in the second leg and booking their ticket for Europe at home in Alkmaar. AZ have begun the season in a similar, high-scoring fashion, winning 4-0 in Sarajevo against Tuzla City after beating them 1-0 a week earlier, losing 1-0 to Dundee United, beating Go Ahead Eagles 2-0 in their Eredivisie opener, before thrashing Dundee United 7-0 at home. The weekend’s match saw them concede within eight seconds as Vito van Crooij snuck past the defense and fired home from close range, only to equalize on the cusp of halftime via a penalty. AZ took the lead in the 57th minute only to cough it up two minutes later to Van Crooij who completed his brace, but left back Milos Kerkez regained their lead in the 65th minute and held onto a 3-2 win at Sparta Rotterdam.
Their next opponent also fell down to an early lead at the weekend with Spanish forward Rafa Mújica capitalizing on a loose ball and winning a foot race with various opponents before firing home against an empty net after Andrew Barbosa came off his line and attempted to clear it only to completely whiff and slip 30 yards from his own goal. The hosts were able to pin back a wave of Gil attacks and mount a couple of their own, with 2 shots on goal to Gil’s 3 and 7 to Gil’s 10, and they came out with a 1-0 victory to bounce back from their 4-0 loss to Benfica on opening day.
It wa their first defeat under new manager Ivo Vieira, who drew 1-1 to Riga in Latvia and beat Paços de Ferreira 1-0 as Ali Alipour capitalized on an error from goalkeeper Jordi and scored a late winner in Barcelos, before beating Riga 4-0 in the first ever home match of European football in Gil’s 98-year history. Fran Navarro scored a brace to add to the lead after an own goal from Ngonda Muzinga and a goal from summer arrival Kevin Villodres saw them go up 2-0 within 22 minutes, and after missing a handful of chances against Arouca, he’ll be looking to bounce back with a big performance at Alkmaar on Thursday. Gil will be looking to become the first Portuguese team to qualify to the Europa Conference League group stage after Vitória de Guimarães were eliminated to Croatian giants Hadjuk Split, and they’ll be under no illusions about the consequences of this fixture. Last season, Paços de Ferreira and Santa Clara fell to Tottenham Hotspur and Partizan Belgrade, respectively, in the Europa Conference qualifiers, with both teams going on to lose their top scorers from last season in the coming weeks with Douglas Tanque and Carlos Júnior departing for the Middle East; failure to reach the Europa Conference League group stage could see last season’s top scorer Fran Navarro follow that same route.
AZ have lost just three home matches since the start of February – a 2-0 KNVB Beker defeat to Ajax, a 1-0 loss to Twente in the league and a 1-3 loss on the final day of the regular season to RKC Waalwijk that was effectively a meaningless affair, whilst they have drawn 2-2 with Ajax and 2-2 with Bodø/Glimt and won their remaining nine. Gil, on the other hand, began 2022 with victories at Benfica and Braga, but since the start of April, they have lost 2-1 at Arouca, drawn 2-2 at Famalicão, lost 4-1 at Sporting and lost 5-0 at Vitória, as well as drawing 1-1 at Riga and losing 1-0 to Arouca. I’m backing them to get another win at home against a Gil side that is still recovering from the departures of key players Samuel Lino, Zé Carlos and Pedrinho as well as manager Ricardo Soares, and that has looked vulnerable defensively in the opening weeks.
Austria Vienna v Fenerbahce SK (Europa League)
Austria Vienna enter their UEFA Europa League Play-Off against Fenerbahce SK as sizable underdogs after the club surprised many and finished third in the Austrian Bundesliga table last season. After a mixed start to the campaign domestically, they recorded their first victory of the season against WSG Tirol on Saturday with Haris Tabakovic and Dominik Fitz scoring the two goals.
Fenerbahce, on the other hand, also enjoyed their first league win of the season by thumping Istanbul rivals Kasimpasa 6-0 away on Monday night, including braces from Enner Valencia and 17-year-old sensation Arda Güler to enter the Generali Arena in the best possible form.
The Turkish giants will already be participating in their fifth European match of the season after losing to Dynamo Kyiv in Champions League qualifying and then dispatching Czech side Slovacko in the previous round. Austria Wien’s last European experience came last season as they were embarrassed by Icelandic minnows Breiðablik – this will be an entirely different sort of occasion.The Violets will be missing a couple of experienced heads with James Holland, Marko Raguz and Andreas Gruber – who all featured in LASK’s exceptional runs of recent years – expected to be out. Fenerbahce will be able to call on a nearly full line-up with Irfan Kahveci (strain) and Italian international striker Joao Pedro (muscle rupture) both missing.
With an unassuming start to the season, the 24-time Austrian champions aren’t yet up to speed for the club’s biggest European match since 2017. Recent European qualifiers have shown alarmingly poor form from Austria Wien, too. Given Fenerbahce’s wealth of experience and potent firepower in the form of Josh King, Emre Mor, Valencia, Güler and company – it’s difficult not to see Fenerbahce winning comfortably.
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