Fortaleza v Cerro Porteno
The Brazilians are on track to return to the group stage for the second year in a row, after blowing away Uruguayan outfit Maldonado 4-0.
Fortaleza dominated their opponents, having 27 shots and seven corners, with their opponents failing to hit the target once.
Admittedly, Cerro Porteno are a much stronger side, but failed to impress against Curico Unido in the last round. They came through 2-0 winners over the two-legs, but after resting most of their players for the reverse leg, a much higher scoreline was expected.
On home soil, Fortaleza will want to establish a lead heading into the second leg, and in front of 50,000 fans, Cerro Porteno may struggle to deal with the hostile environment. On the pitch, Thiago Galhardo will look to add to his seven goals already in 2023, while new signing Juan Lucero will be hoping to build on his brace from the last round.
Back Fortaleza to win the first leg at 1.67.
Almere City v Jong Utrecht
There is a full round of matches in the Dutch second division this Friday and it will be an important one as it is decision time for some teams. It is the final round of the third phase, and the winner gets a money bonus and a guaranteed spot into the play-offs. Up until Monday, ADO Den Haag were leading the charge for that third phase, but the 3-0 home defeat against Heracles Almelo, set them far back and now Almere City are the favourites for that title.
A home victory against bottom of the table Jong FC Utrecht would be enough to do that, and that doesn’t seem like much to ask with the current state of the away side. Utrecht have been pretty poor all season, they had some surprising victories a while back, but they have generally been pretty bad.
Almere City on the other side has been very steady lately. After a pretty bad start to the season, they have really upped their defensive game and have become the first rival to promotion favourites PEC Zwolle and Heracles Almelo. Although their attacking line isn’t great, it is really the defence that put them this high up, as they didn’t concede a single goal in the last four games. Almere signed former Championship winger Rajiv van La Parra this week as an extra weapon for goals. He’ll surely not start immediately, but should be a quality impact sub if things don’t go their way. Against a weak Jong FC Utrecht side, that should be plenty to take the three point and the third phase title.
TOP Oss v ADO Den Haag
For ADO Den Haag there is only one chance to win the third phase and compared to Almere City, who are looking brilliant for the play-offs already, ADO could really do with this guaranteed play-off spot. Their only chance at the title is a victory over TOP Oss, and then they’ll have to hope on flukes from Almere City and NAC Breda, so it doesn’t look good for Dick Advocaat’s team.
ADO had picked up their level quite a bit under Advocaat, but Heracles Almelo put them in their place last Monday with an easy 3-0 away victory. That defeat has likely hit ADO’s morale and their chances of promotion. With TOP, they are facing a team that are also looking a lot better than before the winter break. Marcel van der Sloot made a team that lacked confidence and power going forward into a dangerous side for most teams in this second division, as they have scored in every game since he was in charge.
That hasn’t only been his doing, though, as the return of striker Kay Tejan has made a huge difference for them. Tejan was immediately important in TOP’s attacking game with his link-up play, but it took until last week for him to score his first goal. Quality wise, ADO are probably the better side, but away from home and after the blow from last week, they’ll likely struggle to get the result here.
Willem II v PEC Zwolle
The best game this round might, however, be the one between Willem II and PEC Zwolle. Zwolle are on a high after the 13-0 victory over FC Den Bosch on Monday. It was the joint best result ever in Dutch professional football, equal with the 13-0 between Ajax and VVV Venlo, two years ago. Den Bosch were shocking and Greek striker Apostolos Vellios had his hat-trick sealed after just 12 minutes, but PEC gave the injury battered Den Bosch side no chance to breath during the entire game. PEC Zwolle are heading straight for promotion, but as Almere are doing really well, PEC will need to keep picking up points in these crucial weeks.
With Willem II, PEC are facing one of the teams on the up in the Eerste Divisie. Under the previous manager, Willem II were one of the best defending teams, but they didn’t create much going forward. However, since manager Reinier Robbemond took over, the attacking power improved substantially and Willem II is now a team with smooth attacking play, lots of chances and several goals. They’ll be without striker Jizz Hornkamp, rumoured to go to Nottingham Forest last summer, because of a suspension, but for the rest Willem II are complete. Belgian striker Elton Kabangu, recently in great form, should be able to take his spot without a problem. Against PEC Zwolle, who are on an average of scoring three goals per match, that should guarantee chances and goals on both sides.
FC Dordrecht v De Graafschap
De Graafschap have been without manager Adrie Poldervaart for several weeks now, after he was hit by severe health problems. Coincidence or not, the side started winning games since then, with interim-manager Richard Roelofsen in charge. They climbed up to one of the play-off spots in the past weeks. Poldervaart is not expected to be back anytime soon and although the fans wish him the best health wise, many also hope he won’t take back control of the team again.
FC Dordrecht haven’t been doing well recently. Their first game where they could field January transfers Tidjane Touré and Tim Receveur, ended in a decent 4-0 victory over FC Eindhoven, but in the four matches after, they picked up exactly zero points, and they are back to second to bottom in the league table.
Under Roelofsen, the away side have transitioned from a very experienced team to a side with several youngsters who are taking responsibilities the oldies never took. 18-year-old Devin Haen never started under Poldervaart, but he has been a starter since and scored both goals in the victory over Helmond Sport last week. Camiel Neghli and Rio Hillen did get some game time under Poldervaart, but seem to have become key players in the past weeks and that bids well for the future of De Graafschap, who are slowly trying to push some of the dead wood out of the side. I suspect the away side will extend their good run and I can’t see FC Dordrecht get a result here.
Schaffhausen v Lausanne
Schaffhausen and Lausanne will meet at the WeFox Arena on Friday night with both teams in relatively good form despite their standing at opposite ends of the table. There was a possibility last season that Schaffhausen, via the promotion play-offs, could’ve actually passed Lausanne by on the way to the Super League last season but the cards didn’t fall that way and instead it looks like LS could be set for an instant return to the top-flight and that Schaffhausen will simply have to settle for another season in the Challenge League.
Schaffhausen’s mini-revival since the winter break was much welcome. A team that was really struggling for goals – they had scored just 19 goals in 18 games (six less than anyone else) as the league broke off for the winter break – suddenly found its scoring touch at the end of January and throughout much of February too. After just two wins in their previous fourteen, FCS were able to string together four wins from six and scored more than half of their previous original total goals tally in those games too. That form, their longest unbeaten run since the end of last season, has lifted them up to seventh and onto thirty points. There is no automatic relegation this year, only playoffs, but that thirteen-point buffer they’ve created between themselves and Xamax to essentially eliminate all prospects of falling down the trap door to the Promotion League will be a welcome relief. All that being said, they were brought back down to earth with a 5-0 home loss to Thun at the weekend, their heaviest home defeat since 2009.
Lausanne’s biggest hindrance to their ability to live up to their pre-season tag as league favourites had been their away form. Prior to the winter break, they had won just once on the road. Thankfully for Ludovic Magnin, his team have vastly improved in that metric, winning all three on their travels since returning in January, even if they were a bit more thrilling in the goals department than he would’ve liked. On the flip side, they haven’t quite retained their imperious home form. They are still unbeaten, but they’ve won only one of their last five at the Tulliere. The last two draws will also cause concern though considering they came against ninth-placed Vaduz and eighth-placed Bellinzona. It is four points dropped that have prevented LS from topping the table ahead of Round 25. Oddly enough, they may be glad to get back on their travels again on Friday.
Despite their upturn in form generally, Schaffhausen are still unconvincing on their own patch. They’ve won only two of their last ten, against Vaduz and Bellinzona, and have scored more than one goal only twice since July at home. Lausanne have three away wins in a row and have scored nine goals, including two away to league leaders FC Wil. With the home side fairly incapable of scoring more than one at home, I think LS will simply outscore them to return to winning ways, especially with Hakan Yakin’s men low in confidence following that 5-0 defeat last week.
UCD v Drogheda United
Drogheda United have probably been the surprise package of the league so far with the side many tipped to be in the bottom two going into this game sitting fifth. While it’s early days to be referencing table positions, it has been the manner of Drogheda’s performances that have been most impressive with the Louth men perhaps slightly unlucky to leave Dalymount Park on Monday with a first defeat of the season.
Drogheda were on the wrong end of a couple of horrific refereeing decisions but Kevin Doherty will be pleased to have seen on loan Lincoln City striker Freddie Drapper getting off the mark in the 3-1 defeat.
Drogheda had conceded just one goal in the opening three games with Kevin Doherty’s side once again looking well drilled and difficult to break down this season. The same can’t be said for UCD who have conceded eight goals in the space of four days and go into this game bottom of the table.
Drogheda will be aware their good start would count for little if they lose on Friday so i’d expect them to be well up for this and to have enough quality to pick their moments on the attack while keeping the back door firmly shut.
Athlone Town v Waterford
Athlone Town’s quick start to the season came to an abrupt halt on Friday as Wexford FC put three past the Midlanders at Ferrycarrig Park. As for Waterford, they were once again flat in a 1-0 defeat at home to title rivals Galway United.
As a result, Blues boss Danny Searle is already coming under pressure with fans unhappy not only with early results but with the unfashionable style of football being played by Searle’s side. However, it was Waterford’s directness that caused Wexford so many problems in the Blues 3-0 opening day win and such an approach may hurt Athlone.
Athlone have made some poor defensive errors in recent games and you’d have to think with the wealth of resources Waterford have that their class will show in these sort of games against teams who would be delighted to fall into one of the final play-off places at the end of the year.
Crewe Alexandra v Salford City
Crewe Alexandra are in for a tricky test as they prepare to take on promotion chasing Salford City.
The Railwaymen have endured a poor season and are sat down in 17th position in the league table. They drew 1-1 away at Sutton United last time out with striker Dan Agyei on the scoresheet but they were left disappointed after their opponents equalised in added-on time through defender Coby Rowe. Speaking afterwards, boss Lee Bell said the result was ‘frustrating’ and it could get even worse for his side as they lock horns with an in-form team this weekend. On the selection front, key defender Rod McDonald is suspended after he was sent off last Saturday which is a blow with fit-again Kelvin Mellor expected to step in for him at the back. Crewe have drawn their last four outings in a row and are struggling to pick up wins at the moment as their campaign starts to fizzle out. 2023 hasn’t been the best year for those associated with the Cheshire club and they have won just twice in their first 12 games of this year with performances poor and the players lacking that quality needed to make a serious impact in the division as another underwhelming showing beckons next up.
Salford are hoping that this is the year they can finally get themselves out of League Two and into League One. They are going about it the right way this term and find themselves in the play-offs right now after their 3-1 win at home to Newport County in their last clash courtesy of goals by top class attacking trio Callum Hendry, Conor McAleny and Matt Smith, which shows how dangerous their forward line. Their boss Neil Wood has made a positive impact since joining from Manchester United last year and said after that victory that his players are ‘giving everything’ at the moment. Leeds United loan man Jack Jenkins remain out of action due to injury but the Ammies have a host of useful options in his position in the midfield in the likes of Matty Lund, Ethan Galbraith, Elliott Watt, Stevie Mallan and Ryan Watson which shows the strength in depth they have in their squad which stands them in good stead as the games start to come thick and fast. Salford have won their last three on the spin and have lost just once in their last five as they look to see off lowly Crewe.
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