Monagas v Boca Juniors
Last season Boca Juniors were dumped out on penalties to Corinthians in the first knockout round and they’ll be looking to rectify that, starting with three points in Venezuela.
With Dario Benedetto and Luca Langoni leading the line, Boca Juniors have two very capable strikers at this level, and Monagas are expected to struggle against the Argentine giants.
Monagas have only appeared in the tournament on one previous occasion (2018), losing five and draw one, whimpering out of the group with their tails between their legs. The Venezuelans are lacking firepower too, as last season’s top goalscorer has since moved on, and Monagas have failed to bring in an adequate replacement.
Boca are not the force of old, and have on occasion been known to struggle against lower opposition away from home. However, away from their skinny odds at 4/9, backing both teams not to score at 4/6 creates value that can’t be ignored.
Santa Clara v Vizela
Since ending a 15-year absence from the top-flight, Santa Clara have marked their return to the Primeira with a 10th-place finish, a 9th-place finish, a 6th-place finish that would see them play in Europe for the first time in the club’s 96-year-history, and a 7th-place finish. Today, however, they sit bottom of the league with 15 points from 26 matches, two points behind Paços de Ferreira, four points behind Marítimo in the relegation playoff, and 10 away from automatic safety.
Santa Clara returned from the World Cup break with a 1-0 loss at Gil Vicente before losing 4-0 at home to Braga, a result that was followed by the sacking of Mário Silva. Jorge Simão took the reins only to receive his marching orders after two draws and six losses, with Danildo Accioly taking the reins but nevertheless unable to stop the bleeding. The Azoreans entered March on the back of three consecutive defeats – they have since lost 3-1 to Vitória, 1-0 to Paços de Ferreira (two weeks after losing 3-1 to Marítimo), 2-0 to Rio Ave, and 3-0 to Sporting. I’m expecting that losing streak to continue at home against Vizela on Friday.
Apart from their losses to Benfica, Sporting, Porto and Braga, Vizela have enjoyed an impressive run of form under Manuel Tulipa, who replaced beloved manager Alvaro Pacheco in the World Cup break. Vizela ended 2022 with a 3-0 win against Vitória before losing 2-1 at Famalicão, but they have since beaten Marítimo 3-0 and Rio Ave 3-1 as well as drawn 1-1 at Gil Vicente and 0-0 against Chaves. They opened March with a 3-0 win at Estoril Praia before losing 4-0 to Braga, beating Portimonense 1-0, and returning from the international break with a 3-1 win against Casa Pia. After narrowly avoiding the drop in the 2021/22 season – their second top-flight campaign in club history – Vizela look set for a best-ever finish with the club currently sitting eighth in the table, 16 points above the relegation play-off spot.
They have defied the odds on a shoestring budget and have emerged as a consistent force against mid-table opponents and relegation battlers, and they should have enough in the tank to find a way past a Santa Clara side that can’t seem to score goals or keep them out at the moment. With a stable backline and a plethora of creative options from Alex Mendez to Samu to Kiko Bondoso, this Vizela side should not be taken lightly, and with a six-point deficit on fifth-placed Arouca, they could very well make a late push for the final European positional with a strong run of form.
De Graafschap v Heracles Almelo
Almost a full round of Eerste Divisie this Friday and we start with a strong promotion candidate. Heracles Almelo are on the verge of promotion after equalising against the biggest rival for that second promotion spot, Almere City. 11 points with seven matches to go should be plenty, but Heracles had a hard pill to swallow this week, because top goalscorer Nikolai Laursen, tore his ACL and will be out for the rest of the year. Laursen was very important this season with 16 goals and 8 assists. Heracles generally have a decent attack, because fellow Scandinavians Samuel Armenteros and Emil Hansson are also in double digits, but Laursen had a key role in this attacking trio and his six goals in the last five games showed his form.
De Graafschap are still without manager Adrie Poldervaart, who is recovering from serious health problems, but with assistant Richard Roelofsen they have actually fared better in the past months. Roelofsen especially cleaned up their defence and they went from being one of the regularly conceding teams to one that barely gives away chances. Their five clean sheets from the past seven games have shown that.
Even against top of the league, PEC Zwolle, they only conceded once (1-0 home defeat) and it is clear that the priority under Roelofsen is their defence. Heracles still have a decent attack, but away from home they aren’t as strong as on their own plastic pitch and they’ll have to get used to an attack with Laursen coming from the right, so I suspect this could be a match with few goals.
Almere City v Jong AZ
Jong AZ are easily the strongest academy team in the league this year. They have a very talented new crop of players, who beat FC Barcelona (3-0), Eintracht Frankfurt (5-0) and Real Madrid (4-0) in the UEFA Youth League, and several of those players will feature with this Jong AZ side this Friday. With the first team playing on Saturday, they could also have a few of the first-team fringe players playing 60 minutes or half an hour for them, so it looks like they’ll bring a fairly strong team to Almere.
That is necessary as well, because Almere are very steady and still in the fight for a direct promotion spot, although chances are slim with 11 points to catch up on Heracles in the last seven games. Almere have been one of the most steady teams in the second half of the season. They are not the most spectacular team, but they barely give away goals and recorded five 1-0 victories in the last twelve games. In fact, Almere haven’t scored more than two goals in any of their matches this year, and that sums up the side. They are not interested in pleasing the fans, they take the lead and clinically get it over the finish line.
Almere are a decent team, so it is a bit far-fetched to see Jong AZ claim the victory in this away game, but they should be able to stay close with the quality they have this year, so a victory with a +2 handicap is reasonable and they might even get a draw or a cheeky victory.
UCD v Shelbourne
Shels boss Damien Duff was left fuming last Friday night as a controversial refereeing decision saw his team reduced to 10 men early in the second half when already chasing down a 1-0 deficit at home to Derry City.
Shelbourne were well in the game when Paddy Barrett picked up a soft second yellow and were perhaps unlucky to be behind in a game where the Reds once again missed some guilt-edged chances.
Putting the ball in the net has been a huge problem for Duff’s men with Shelbourne scoring just four goals all season. However, their general play has been quite encouraging which is enough to suggest they should be able to sweep UCD aside.
The Students sit bottom of the table and have also scored just four times this season. Their manager Andy Myler described their performance against St.Pat’s last week as their worst since being promoted two seasons ago. That 3-0 loss brings UCD’s record to 6 losses and 1 draw this season and going off recent performances it’s hard to see a turnaround soon.
Shels are putting in some good performances overall, while UCD are already in disarray. Backing Duff’s men in on the nose in this one seems the most sensible selection in this one.
Bray Wanderers v Athlone Town
Two teams who will be relatively happy with their starts to the season but two sets of coaching staff who will be aware their teams have left a lot to be desired in the defensive side of their games.
Bray Wanderers and Athlone Town both had defensive horror shows last time out with Bray perhaps lucky not to lose away to Cobh while Athlone took the lead against league leaders Galway but were unable to manage that lead and were very quickly pegged back to lose 3-1.
Only two points separate the sides going into Friday’s game with both teams winning three of their opening seven matches. Offensively, Bray have scored 11 times and Athlone 10 while at the other end, Athlone have shipped three more goals than Friday’s hosts (8 v 11).
Bray have scored in 6 of their 7 league matches while Athlonr have registered in 5 of their 7 league games. Bray have kept just two clean sheets with Athlone recording just one against the league’s bottom side Kerry.
As you can see, there’s not likely to be much between these two sides but we should see goals.
Cobh Ramblers v Waterford FC
Waterford FC have made it clear from the get-go this season that promotion is the only acceptable outcome at the end of this season. With the Blues making a slower start than expected, it was no surprise to see Danny Searle shown the door last week.
The appointment of former Bohemians boss Keith Long could be a shrewd one with the capture of Derry City assistant Alan Reynolds perhaps equally as key. Reynolds is a local boy who managed at the RSC previously and is widely regarded as one of if not the best coach in the league.
Reynolds was not in the dugout for Friday’s 7-1 hammering of Finn Harps as Keith Long got off to a flyer with the Munster club but we’ll get a first glimpse of the dream team when Waterford travel to a high-flying Cobh Ramblers on Good Friday.
The Rams were expected to improve this season under Shane Keegan after some eye-catching signings but nobody would have tipped Cobh to be as high as second at this stage of the season with the Cork club winning 4 of their first 7 matches and suffering only one defeat.
However, that defeat came away to league leaders Galway and there was a feeling on the night that perhaps Cobh’s limitations against one of the division’s full-time teams was shown up, and with Long looking like he will let the handbrake off this could be a difficult night for Ramblers.
Waterford beat Cobh 0-4, 4-2, 0-5 and 3-1 last season and while Cobh have improved remarkably this season, that’s a big gap to close and they may find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time as the Long and Reynolds era begins at Waterford FC.
Treaty United v Longford Town
Longford Town finally picked up their first three points of the season at home to bottom-side Kerry FC last Saturday but they were far less convincing than the 2-0 scoreline would suggest. De Town doubled their goals return for the season thanks to Joshua Giurgi’s brace against Kerry but such a statement tells you all you need to know. Longford are struggling massively to create chances and even when they do, they aren’t taking them.
As for Treaty United, they’ve also scored just 4 times this season but unlike Longford, the Limerick men are still searching for that elusive first win. 3 draws and 3 defeats see Treaty sit second from bottom which makes Friday’s game a huge one for both teams.
Four of Treaty’s opening six matches have featured under 2.5 goals while Longford have been one of the division’s dullest teams to watch this season with all of their previous six matches posting a total of under 2.5 goals.
Longford have never beaten Treaty United at the Market Fields with 3 of the 4 H2H’s last season ending in a draw with two of those games ending 0-0.
Wexford FC v Galway United
There are already some small noises emanating from Wexford that all may not be right after a humble return of just 2 wins from 7 matches. This is probably the most expensively assembled Wexford FC squad ever and the reason for such investment from the club’s board is simple…promotion. Such a target seems a far cry away based on recent performances and if that continues then it could be a short spell in management for rookie boss James Keddy.
Promotion is also the only prize acceptable to Galway United fans this season and the Tribesmen may just live up to such expectations after all with John Caulfield’s men a perfect 7 from 7 this season. Galway have never started a season with 8 straight wins and now have their eyes on that club record with a win away to Wexford this Friday.
Wexford have been a shambles defensively this season with Keddy’s side registering just two clean sheets and shipping 10 goals. When they are under even the most moderate of pressure, vast oceans of space seem to appear in the Wexford defence and the league’s top goalscorers Galway are sure to exploit those spaces should they appear on Friday.
Perhaps even more impressive than the record of 19 goals scored in 7 matches is the fact Galway have conceded just 3 times all year and have kept 4 clean sheets. This is a Galway team well able to manage games, something Wexford seem incapable of doing and the league leaders are likely to have too much for Wexford.
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