Millonarios v Atletico MG
Atletico Mineiro will need to be switched on when they fly to Colombia. Millonarios will have sold out their 36,000 capacity, looking to create a hostile environment for the Brazilians.
Atletico MG struggled to produce when they played Carabobo in Venezuela in the last round – admittedly without Hulk – but the last thing they will want is to be chasing the game in a week’s time. Having reached the tournament’s semi-finals and quarter-finals in the last two years, Atletico MG have the experience to manage these kind of matches. They will be looking to suck the life out of the game, frustrate Millonarios and potentially look to nick a goal on the break.
I predicted a tight affair in Venezuela the last time Atletico travelled, and although this is a completely different game, there’s too much on the line for risks. I can envision a similar outcome in Colombia. Hulk or not, Atletico’s priority will be to keep Millonarios at bay and their experience should come through in a difficult environment.
Bayer Leverkusen v Ferencvaros
Bayer Leverkusen host Hungarian side Ferencvaros in the first-leg of their Europa League Round of 16 tie on Thursday night. Although a favourable draw, Xabi Alonso will be wary of Ferencvaros, who sit 14 points clear in their league, and are unbeaten in their last 11 games across all competitions. As for Bayer Leverkusen, confidence is high after scoring four goals against Hertha Berlin on Sunday.
Florian Wirtz is in excellent form with seven goal contributions (two goals, five assists) in his last 10 games across all competitions. The creative outlet in this Bayer Leverkusen squad, Wirtz averages 2.8 Key Passes Per 90, and will be the key to victory for the German side. After almost one-year on the sidelines following an ACL injury in March 2022, Wirtz is slowly returning to full fitness and his performances in the calendar year are mesmerising.
Against Ferencvaros, expect Alonso to set-up in his preferred 3-4-3 formation which would see Wirtz partner Moussa Diaby behind what would likely be Adam Hložek. Patrik Schick, who returned from injury last month, remains an excellent option off the bench and provides Alonso with plenty of quality should it be called upon.
Perhaps the worrying thing for Bayer Leverkusen is that they’ve only kept one competitive clean sheet in 2023, and that came against relegation threatened Bochum. Lukas Hradecky has a mistake in him, Jonathan Tah isn’t at his best whilst Piero Hincapie, although one of Europe’s best defensive talents, hasn’t been able to replicate last season’s form.
That would give Ferencvaros some hope heading into this game. Before Sunday’s win against Hertha Berlin, Bayer Leverkusen lost their last three games at the BayArena. However, the Hungarian side come into this game with just one win in their last four, beating 10 man Debrecen. Ferencvaros like to operate in a 4-2-3-1, which Bayer Leverkusen should be accustomed too with the majority of Bundesliga clubs playing a similar setup. Kristoffer Zachariassen is the player to watch with three goals from midfield, but B04’s Robert Andrich and Exequiel Palacios should be able to compete with the Ferencvaros midfield.
Bayer Leverkusen have the superior squad here and whilst they’re prone to a defensive mistake, they have enough quality to see off the Hungarian side in the first-leg.
Union Berlin v Union St Gilloise
This will be the third time this season Union SG and Union Berlin have played each other in the Europa League after they were drawn in the same group. Both games finished 1-0 to the away side and I think we can expect to see something similar in the first-leg of the Round of 16.
Union Berlin have only scored three or more goals in two of their 11 games in 2023. The last time they did it, they put three past Ajax in the second-leg of the previous round, securing their place in the Round of 16. Their performance against the Dutch champions shocked many and still in a Bundesliga title race, their remarkable story continues.
Over two legs, you would fancy Union Berlin to advance. A win against Eupen at the weekend, Union SG ended their run of three successive defeats and so they come into this game low on confidence. They’ve conceded nine goals in their last three league games, but don’t expect Union Berlin to force an attack. They like to sit deep and hit their opponents on the break, something that we witnessed against Ajax.
Urs Fischer’s Union Berlin have lost just one of their 11 games in the calendar year and although they tend to be low scorers, they also keep it tight at the back. Operating with a back five, Union Berlin have kept three clean sheets in their last five games across all competitions. In those 11 games, they’ve only conceded two or more goals on one occasions, against Bayern Munich.
When taking into account their meetings earlier in the season, I fully expect this to be another low-scoring tie. A draw seems like a likely outcome, and Under 2.5 Goals offers excellent value.
Anderlecht v Villarreal
With Anderlecht 10th in the Belgian Pro League and Villarreal 6th in LaLiga, the Spanish side are heavy favourites to win this tie on paper. The first leg could be a little more even, though, as Anderlecht coach Brian Riemer is taking the Conference League very seriously and played very strong line-ups in the playoff round win over Ludogorets, decided on penalties at an electric Constant Vanden Stock Stadium.
Villarreal, though, are a few tiers above Ludogorets and the Spanish side are taking this competition very seriously too. From the beginning of the season, they have had winning the Conference League as one of their primary targets. They were the first club to win their group in the group stage of this competition and coach Quique Setién will also be fielding a strong starting XI on Thursday, perhaps including Gerard Moreno, who returned from injury by scoring in a 2-0 win at Almería last weekend.
Backing Villarreal to progress to the next round of this competition against a struggling Anderlecht side makes complete sense, but perhaps it’s worth adding the draw no bet safety net for the first leg. Anderlecht hope the Conference League can provide them some joy too in this difficult season, and they could make it a close contest in their home leg at least.
Roma v Real Sociedad
Roma vs Real Sociedad is certainly an intriguing tie as these clubs meet for the first time, but it doesn’t promise to be a goal fest. Far from it, in fact.
These are two teams that win more often than not, but that tend to win by the minimum. Even if they have two very different coaches stylistically, in pragmatist Jose Mourinho and possession-loving Imanol Alguacil, neither side scores a lot nor concedes a lot.
The stats reflect this, as Roma fixtures have produced the second-fewest goals in Serie A this season with just 2.12 total goals on average. Meanwhile, Real Sociedad’s LaLiga matches are the eighth-lowest scoring in Spain’s top division, producing an average of just 2.29 goals. And, these season-long stats are still true when looking at recent form, as four of Roma’s past five Serie A matches have produced under 2.5 goals, with an average of 1.80 per game, while four of Real Sociedad’s past five LaLiga games have also had under 2.5 goals, also at an average of 1.80 per game.
The two-legged dynamic of this tie could make goals even harder to come by. With no away goal incentive, Real Sociedad will look to dominate possession as they always do but won’t have to take risks. And Roma, as we saw last season on their run to Conference League glory, have no issue with edging through the rounds, as five of their seven knockout round games last campaign were under 2.5 goals too.
Man United v Real Betis
Erik ten Hag will demand an immediate reaction from Manchester United after their historic 7-0 humiliation at Anfield on Sunday, and that will start back at Old Trafford as ex-Manchester City coach Manuel Pellegrini and his Real Betis team rock up in town.
These two teams actually met in a friendly match in December, with Manchester United fielding a weakened side as many of their stars continued to take part in the World Cup, with a strong Real Betis team running out 1-0 winners. The return of United’s big players is almost certain to swing the balance in the opposite direction.
United may be without Casemiro due to an injury which will make him a doubt, but will likely field a strong line-up to avoid any further embarrassment after Sunday’s debacle. Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Wout Weghorst and Alejandro Garnacho or Jadon Sancho could all start in what is being tipped to be a very offensive line-up.
Betis will be without their two most creative players, Nabil Fekir and Sergio Canales, due to injury, meaning that youngsters Luiz Henrique and Rodri will carry even more weight in the attacking department and may struggle up against an experienced Manchester United defence with a point to prove, with the likes of Raphaël Varane certainly no stranger to winning against Spanish teams or in Europe.
With home advantage behind them, and Betis making their first visit to the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, United will be looking to get the fans back onside and to build up a strong position from the first leg in this battle.
Sevilla v Fenerbache
We could be in for a thriller in the city of Seville as Sevilla welcome Fenerbahce to the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán as they look to maintain an impressive run of form at home which has seen them lose just one of their last six games at their home arena since the World Cup came to a conclusion.
However, Sevilla come into this tie off the back of conceding six against Atlético Madrid at the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano in the Spanish capital on Saturday night, and their defenders are probably still reeling from the thrashing.
Going forwards, Sevilla have failed to score in only three of Jorge Sampaoli’s 27 games in charge since his appointment in October and will be keen to replicate their big win over PSV Eindhoven in the first leg, where a 3-0 victory in Spain set them up well for the second leg in The Netherlands.
Fenerbahce are not afraid of goals either. They have kept a clean sheet just once in the 2023 calendar year, while their 2.37 goals per 90 is 0.48 goals per 90 more than their next highest-scoring rivals in Turkey. Belgian forward Michy Batshuayi is leading the way with 15 goals to his name already this season, including three in the Europa League.
With goals likely from both sides of this battle, both teams to score seems excellent value for this first leg clash, with Sevilla unlikely to rely on an away win and Fenerbahce keen to take advantage of any hangover from that terrible defeat to Atleti.
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.
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