Barcelona v Manchester United
Without a doubt, Barcelona vs Manchester United is the Europa League playoff tie that most are looking forward to, but the first leg might not produce all that many goals. European first legs always have the potential to be cagey, and especially if this current Barcelona side are involved.
The Catalans are in good form and have won their past six matches, but four of these were 1-0 wins. Xavi has preached about attacking football years, but has actually turned out to be much more of a pragmatist than expected and hasn’t hesitated during this recent good run of form to finish a match without a single forward on the pitch.
With Marc-André ter Stegen and Ronald Araújo both expected to start this game for Barcelona, they’ll have two of the key pieces behind their Europe-leading defence, one which has let in just seven goals in 21 LaLiga games this season and just one at home. This has made their matches fairly low-scoring this season, with just 2.38 total goals on average.
Manchester United games have been producing more goals, with 2.87 on average, but Erik ten Hag’s side haven’t faced an opponent as defensively strong as this Barça squad. On Thursday night, it’ll be incredibly tough for the visitors to get on the scoresheet, while the Catalans are only likely to score one or two of their own if going by recent form.
Juventus v Nantes
Having dropped down into the Europa League from the Champions League, Juventus are one of the sides with the greatest incentive to win this competition. Docked points domestically, the Turin outfit’s only realistic route back into the premier competition next season is by winning this tournament.
A home match against Ligue 1 side Nantes may have proved to be something of a banana skin fixture if they were treating this competition lightly, but things are falling into place for the Italians before this match.
They have won their last three domestic matches without conceding a goal and will surely look to kill this tie off before a trip to France next week, which falls days before a derby with Torino.
Nantes come into this tie with a makeshift defence. Key centre-back Nicolas Pallois could return after injury, but expecting him to be fully fit after five weeks out seems wildly optimistic, especially against such a high-level opponent. Furthermore, with Jean-Charles Castelletto probably missing after a weekend injury, he could line up in a back four alongside Joao Vitor and Jaoulen Hadjam – two players he has never worked with before in a competitive match.
The French side struggled away from home in the group stage, losing 3-0 to Qarabag and 2-0 to Freiburg, and though they beat Olympiacos 2-0, the Greeks had nothing to play for on that occasion. Juventus should have too much for their opponents on this occasion and will be aiming to win with some to spare.
Bayer Leverkusen v Monaco
Bayer Leverkusen host AS Monaco at the BayArena on Thursday night after finishing third in a Champions League group behind FC Porto and Club Brugge.
Before the World Cup, Xabi Alonso’s side went on a run of three successive wins and started the year with wins against Borussia Monchengladbach and Bochum, but defeats against Borussia Dortmund and Augsburg followed with Leverkusen failing to score in either of those two. On Saturday, normal service had been somewhat resumed as B04 put three past Hoffenheim.
It’s likely that we’ll see Alonso set-up his side in a 3-4-3 again with Jeremie Frimpong providing width on the right-flank. Leverkusen also have pace and technical ability in attack with Amine Adli, Moussa Diaby and Adam Hlozek. Florian Wirtz also provides a creative outlet and against a Monaco side that typically play in a back-four, Diaby and Co. could overwhelm the Monaco defence with a front three, but they will have to be wary of Monaco’s counter-attacking ability.
At the weekend, Monaco beat PSG 3-1 and only allowed their opponents two chances. Bayer Leverkusen do miss a focal point in attack with Patrick Schick sidelined but with the attacking trio, Alonso has plenty of options to keep things interesting in the final third, whether it’s Hlozek dropping deep, Diaby moving central or Wirtz operating as a False 9.
Only PSG have created more chances/90 than Monaco (8) this season whilst the Principality club average 6 shots on target/90, again only bettered by PSG. Monaco have also scored in each of their last seven away games across all competitions and with an attack that includes Breel Embolo, I imagine chances will be aplenty at the BayArena. Expect Over 2.5 Goals to come in.
Sporting Lisbon v FC Midtjylland
As the Europa League returns Thursday evening, Portuguese giants Sporting CP enter the knock out stage as firm favourites at home against FC Midtjylland from Denmark.
Sporting finished third in their Champions League group behind Tottenham and Eintracht Frankfurt in the autumn, which saw them earn a ticket to the Europa League. They are currently sitting fourth in the Portuguese league, 15 points behind SL Benfica, and are in decent form. In the weekend they lost 2-1 at home to FC Porto, but they have four victories in their previous six outings, including an impressive 5-0 demolition against 3rd placed Braga at the beginning of the month.
As for FC Midtjylland, the fixture against Sporting will be their first competitive match since November before the World Cup. The Danish Superliga doesn’t start until the weekend, and it remains unknown exactly where Midtjylland are physically. Scandinavian sides have historically struggled in the knock out games after the winter break due to the lack of competitive matches, and this could easily be the case for Midtjylland too. To make things even worse, the Wolves lost their biggest star, Anders Dreyer, in January as he was sold to Anderlecht.
We expect Sporting to take care of business at home. Midtjylland are severely lacking match fitness, and without Dreyer they should struggle offensively. Betfair are offering odds 1.95 on Sporting to win with at least two goals, which is great value in this match up.
Sevilla v PSV
This match-up will see Sevilla face Dutch opposition for the first time in their history as they take on PSV Eindhoven at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. On Thursday night, the Spanish side will be looking to maintain their remarkable record of achieving victory in 22 of their 24 Europa League knock-out fixtures.
Home advantage could make a big difference in this game. Sevilla have only lost one of their last 24 home games in the Europa League, while PSV have lost their last three consecutive knock-out away games in the competition with an average of 3.7 goals conceded per game. What’s more, they have won just one of their last four matches against Spanish opposition.
Sevilla also come into this fixture buoyant after winning four of their last six games to climb away from the bottom of the LaLiga table. Jorge Sampaoli arrived with the team fighting relegation and initially struggled to improve results, but have now won four games in a row at the Pizjuán since the World Cup and seem to be on the up, especially at home.
PSV’s last away win came on 6th November, against Ajax of all teams, but they have picked up only three points, all from draws, from four matches on the road since then in the Eredivisie. While they may look strong at home, their away form means that this trip to the south of Spain could prove a very tricky one for the Dutch side.
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