Nantes v Freiburg
Despite losing their top scorer, starting goalkeeper, and vice captain over the past summer, despite having the second-lowest revenue in the Bundesliga, and despite being only four years removed from their days in the second division, Union Berlin have continued to take German football by storm under Urs Fischer. After finishing 11th in their return to the top-flight, Union finished seventh in 2020/21 to secure European qualification for the first time in club history, failing to advance from their Europa Conference League group but nevertheless enjoying a dream campaign that would see them finish fifth and advance to the DFB-Pokal semifinals.
Today, they sit atop the Bundesliga with 23 points in 11 matches thanks to a stalwart defense that has conceded just 8 goals thus far – the joint-best with Bayern Munich – a deep defensive block, and a lethal counterattacking operation that is spearheaded by the duo of American striker Jordan Pefok and Surinamese winger Sheraldo Becker. After scoring 7 goals in his first 60 Bundesliga appearances, the Ajax academy product was largely written off as a failed transfer, only to begin the 2022/23 season with 6 goals and 4 assists in his first 11 matches.
In a weekend that saw the rest of the top six pick up victories, Union Berlin fell to a 2-1 defeat at VfL Bochum – who found themselves bottom of the table at kickoff – as Philipp Hofmann opened the scoring before the break for the hosts, with Gerrit Holtmann doubling the lead in the 73rd minute and Miloš Pantovic halving the deficit in extra time. This result didn’t just snap a streak of five consecutive wins in all competitions for Union, but it also ended a run of 11 straight matches with fewer than three goals scored, a run dating back to September 3 in a 1-1 draw vs. Bayern Munich.
Union Berlin’s maiden Europa League journey began with a 1-0 home defeat to Union Saint-Gilloise, followed up with a 1-0 loss at Braga and a 1-0 win at Malmö, with the hosts going down to 10 men at the interval as Becker made them pay with a goal in the 68th minute, and they would narrowly prevail with a 1-0 home win on October 13 as Robin Knoche fired in an 89th minute penalty goal, with Malmö having a player sent off in extra time. With two matches remaining, Union Berlin sit six points above Malmö, one point behind Braga and four behind USG, and they’ll be looking to get another massive result as they host Braga on Thursday at the Stadion An der Alten Försterei.
After beginning the season with a 3-3 draw to Sporting, Braga would win eight straight matches in all competitions before returning from international break with a 4-1 defeat at Porto, and following that up with a 2-1 loss at home to USG and a 3-3 draw in Belgium, going up 3-1 before halftime via a hat-trick from Vitinha only to concede twice in the second half. Having lost 1-0 to Chaves and narrowly scraped past third-tier Felgueiras in the Taça de Portugal, Braga would pick up a much-needed three points at the weekend against Estoril Praia, with Al Musrati opening the scoring after 10 minutes and Vitinha adding another in the 31st.
Whilst both teams have ample firepower in attack, I think Braga’s trip to East Berlin could be a low-scoring affair. Union currently rank 16th in the Bundesliga in Expected Goals with 11 – they are outperforming their xG by 8 goals – 13th for shots on target per match (4.2) and dead-last for big chances created (7). Braga have achieved similar success by shifting away from a possession-heavy model under Carlos Carvalhal and adapting a more counter-attacking approach under new manager Artur Jorge. Despite accumulating 18.1 xG, they have scored the most goals in Portugal (26) and find themselves level with Porto and six points behind league leaders Benfica. Both managers will be keeping their cards close to their chest in the knowledge that their opponent is perfectly capable of grabbing an early lead, soaking up pressure and hitting on the break.
These teams mirror each other in more ways than one, from their counter-attacking efficiency to their efforts to break into the footballing elite of their respective countries, and I’m expecting the two sides to produce a low-scoring but entertaining fixture in Germany.
FC Zürich v Bodø/Glimt
This is a matchup between 4th and 3rd in the group. Zürich are out of the qualification reckoning after losing all four matches. However, they could still obtain third spot and a drop down to the Conference League should they beat Glimt here and then potentially get something in the final game vs Arsenal. The problem for the Swiss champions is that they have been utterly demolished twice by PSV Eindhoven, 1-5 and 0-5 respectively. Those results have been incredibly harmful and will probably prove fatal in their quest to get anything from this group.
Their issues have not just been in Europe though. Domestically, they sit bottom of the Swiss Premier league with no wins in any of their first 13 matches! Their form has been shocking and they head into this clash on the back of a 1-4 home loss to local rivals Grasshoppers at the weekend. They recently appointed a new manager, Bo Henriksen who was the former FC Midtjylland boss. Henriksen switched to a 3-4-1-2 system and managed to grind out two consecutive 0-0 draws in the league before that Grasshoppers defeat.
The Norwegian outfit Bodø/Glimt head into this match with their group destiny in their own hands. If they win their final two matches, then they would qualify for the Europa League knockout phase. That is a very strong dangling carrot, and they can ill afford slipping up here. If they draw this game, then it would guarantee them at least a Conference League berth and would also still keep them in the hunt for top two qualification if PSV Eindhoven didn’t beat Arsenal. Kjetil Knutsen’s side have been in tremendous form domestically in the last few weeks, racking up two 4-1 victories in addition to a 6-0 and 5-0 success. They gave a good account of themselves twice vs Arsenal but fell to defeat on both occasions 0-3 and 0-1.
With Bodø/Glimt now doing well in the Eliteserien, four points clear of second place, they can probably put some more extra focus into this Europa League campaign. They do not have a good away record in Europe this year though, failing to win a single road match and losing in places such as the Faroe Islands & Northern Ireland. They did pick up a very creditable 1-1 draw at PSV though.
FC Zürich seem so poor right now that backing Bodø/Glimt to win at 1.95 seems like the best bet. There is a case to be made that they simply must pay more attention to their Swiss Super League form with their Europa League hopes now looking very bleak. There is a worry that Bodø/Glimt have problems away from home in Europe, but they are in much better form and should be good enough to get the three points here.
Ludogorets v Real Betis
Real Betis will travel to Bulgaria aware that a draw or win against Ludogorets will suffice for the Spanish team to secure first place in their Europa League group and a ticket straight to the last 16, thereby avoiding the knockout round play-offs. For Real Betis coach Manuel Pellegrini, this is a significant prize. “Normally all that matters is qualification, but now first place really does matter as you can save yourself two matches,” he said of the bye earlier this season.
As such, Real Betis are expected to put out a very strong starting XI for this game to try to clinch first place in Group C. They’ll need to do so as Ludogorets are a good team and have won their past four games across all competitions, three of them in the league and also their previous Europa League fixture against HJK.
When these sides met in Seville earlier in the season, it was a back-and-forth duel which Real Betis ultimately won 3-2. So, Pellegrini and his coaching staff know not to underestimate the Bulgarian champions, who might be able to welcome back star man Kiril Despodov from injury for this one.
Real Betis are the slight favourites to win, and rightly so, but don’t rule out a draw in this game given that this result would allow the Spanish side to secure their objective of first place. If the game is level as the final minutes approach, Pellegrini is experienced enough to know how to see the game out for the one point that Real Betis need.
Fenerbahce v Rennes
Fenerbahce’s Europa League clash with Rennes is one that promises goals. When the sides met in France in September, they played out a highly entertaining 2-2 draw, in which the Turkish club came from two down to take a point when their opponents really should have been out of sight. It would be surprising if more goals did not follow in this match between two clubs that love to attack.
Indeed, this is effectively a final between these teams, who know that victory will guarantee top spot in the group. This is precious because it will prevent the winning team playing in the intermediate stage in the spring, saving them the headache of two additional fixtures. Defeat, meanwhile, would be no great hardship given that both would expect to progress in any case.
Three of Fenerbahce’s four previous matches in the competition have yielded at least three goals, while the hosts can afford to channel significant energy towards this game given they have a relatively straightforward domestic match against Istanbulspor to come on Sunday.
Rennes have similarly seen three of their four European matches bring at least 2.5 goals, while domestically, eight of their last 10 fixtures have produced winners with this bet. Given they are a team that is desperate to make inroads when playing in Europe, expect them to treat this match seriously, and that means playing on the front foot.
Malmö FF v Union Saint-Gilloise
Malmö, dead last in Group D, have little to play for with two matches remaining. The Swedish champions have endured an absolutely miserable campaign, just about sitting in the top half of Allsvenskan in 7th as defending champions and struggling badly in Europe. The domestic performance means they will miss out on Europe entirely next season for the first time in nearly a decade, unless they are able to win the Swedish cup in the spring. There is total chaos in the Swedish powerhouse, with players unhappy and underperforming, senior directors and managers being criticised by media and fans alike, and some terrible football on display, especially considering the squad at hand.
Whereas it initially looked like the return of Åge Hareide might spark a sort of revival, those hopes have rapidly been shattered and the team is now without a win in seven matches in all competitions, five of those being defeats. This season can be written off, and a change of structure, manager and players looks to be needed in the off-season.
Union Saint-Gilloise, on the other hand, have kept riding the wave of last season when they were within an inch of clinching their first ever league title. After a somewhat shaky start this year, they now sit fourth, however Genk are dominant at the top of the division and remain eight points ahead. No defeat in nine matches in all competitions is impressive though, especially considering USG have faced the likes of Union Berlin, Braga, Gent and Club Brugge. The latter proved a stern test at the weekend in a match which finally ended 2-2, despite a red card for Simon Adingra in the 14th minute and the ensuing penalty slotted home by Brugge. Coming back from a 2-0 deficit with a man down is a mightily impressive feat, especially against a top-quality team like Club Brugge, and shows just how much quality this USG side possesses.
With a win here, the Belgians would guarantee qualification to the knockout phase, and put them in an incredibly strong position to finish first going into the final round of matches. Considering the hosts’ poor form of late and disarray in the ranks, we can fully expect to see USG outperform them and grab a victory.
HJK v Roma
As soon as the group stage draw was made in August, this tie was the standout for HJK and tickets sold out in record time. 500 or so visiting Roma fans should make this a fantastic atmosphere for a final home fixture of 2022. After clinching their 32nd domestic title at Haka, the trophy party was spoilt somewhat with a 0-1 defeat to KuPS but it was already in the bag. Planning for next season has already begun with contract extensions for key players and a real push for the Champions League group stage.
The previous Europa League games have shown some spirit against more experienced and higher quality opponents but that gulf was shown in the previous meeting where HJK went down to ten men after an early red for Tenho and Roma were able to bring on top internationals such as Dybala and Abraham who made the advantage pay. Roma’s inconsistent season so far has shown lip service to this competition but Roma need to win this to improve their chances of progress later on.
HJK will still be without Moren and Roope Riski but otherwise a pretty full strength squad to choose from. Perpa Hetemaj will be key in midfield, his ten years in Italy will be invaluable but he struggles to last ninety minutes. Hostikka and Browne at wing back will provide plenty of attacking verve but there will be gaps behind for the three HJK centre backs to monitor. If Klubi can score first, they would relish the chance to defend a lead but only one goal in the competition so far suggests that will be unlikely.
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