The Champions League returns to our screens with some cracking encounters lined up.
Holders Barcelona will be looking to return to winning ways against Bayer Leverkusen following their draw at Roma. Arsenal will be desperate to get off the mark against Olympiakos, while the Manchester clubs will look for maximum points against German clubs Wolfsburg and Borussia Monchengladbach following defeats last time out. Of the English clubs, Chelsea have the toughest task – a tricky away fixture at Jose Mourinho’s old stomping ground, FC Porto. Chelsea’s start to the season has been mixed, and Mourinho’s old Real Madrid nemesis Iker Casillas will look to put one over him.
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Tuesday 29 September 2015
Olympique Lyon play host to Valencia on Tuesday with both sides still searching for their first victory of the competition. Lyon had to make do with a 1-1 draw in their Group H opener away to Gent, Hubert Fournier's men letting the lead slip before Alexandre Lacazette missed from the spot to leave the Belgians with a share of the spoils. Meanwhile, Valencia were the only one of Spain's five Champions League participants to get off to a losing start as a Hulk brace handed Zenit St Petersburg a thrilling 3-2 win at Mestalla. These sides were drawn in the same group in the 2000/2001 tournament with Valencia winning the ties 1-0 at home and 2-1 at Lyon. Valencia are blessed with a wide array of attacking talent. Alvaro Negredo, Paco Alcacer and Pablo Piatti lead the line, with the impressive Daniel Parejo playing creator as the number ten. It should be a tight affair but I’m tipping Valencia to bounce back strongly and come away with maximum points.
Zenit Saint Petersburg 4/10
Zenit St Petersburg got their Champions League campaign off to a winning start as they recorded a 3-2 victory at Valencia thanks to a super performance from Hulk. The Brazilian forward scored twice and set up Axel Witsel to give his side the leadership of Group H. Gent earned a draw on their Champions League debut despite ending with nine men, although they needed Matz Sels' late penalty save. The Belgian champions will be without two first-team regulars in Brecht Dejaegere and Thomas Foket, who were both suspended in that match. There is talent in this Zenit team, but consistency remains an issue. Ezequiel Garay leads the backline, with the enigmatic Hulk the star in attack. Gent have struggled to win matches on the road this season and Zenit are tipped to oust their opponents.
FC Porto 13/10
Jose Mourinho will face an emotional return to Porto, the club where he made a name for himself. The Portuguese is a man for whom sentiment seems to play a huge part in life, and there is no doubt he will relish the adulation he is certain to receive when he walks out into the Estadio do Dragao. Come kick-off, Porto supporters will be focused on cheering their team onto victory, but none will have forgotten Mourinho's notable achievements as Dragoes boss that included masterminding domestic league and cup glory as well as famously winning the UEFA Cup and Champions League in consecutive seasons before taking the helm at Stamford Bridge. However, among the Porto ranks will be ex-Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who probably endured the worst period of his career under Mourinho. Casillas will no doubt play out of his skin trying to keep a clean sheet while the 'Special One' will take great delight should his strikers run riot. The Blues thrashed Maccabi Tel Aviv 4-0 on Matchday 1 and took the early lead in Group C after Porto drew 2-2 at Dynamo Kiev. Chelsea have lost just one of their six encounters against Porto with four wins, including three on the trot. With the attacking threat of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, Oscar and Pedro, Chelsea should come away with maximum points.
Maccabi Tel Aviv 33/10
Dynamo Kiev 9/10
Maccabi Tel Aviv were on the receiving end of a 4-0 annihilation at the hands of a rampant Chelsea side on Matchday 1. The Israeli champions will be desperate to bounce back after such a heavy defeat but it won’t be easy against resolute Dynamo Kiev. A late equaliser from Vitaliy Buyalskyy rescued a point for the Ukrainians in a 2-2 draw with Porto and they’ll be targeting their first win of the tournament. These sides met in the 2011/2012 Europa League with both ties ending in draws. This time Kiev's attacking talent could be a huge advantage over the sluggish Maccabi defence marshalled by Tal Ben Haim. The away win is tipped at 9/10.
Arsenal slipped to a shocking 2-1 defeat against Dinamo Zagreb in their opening Champions League group stage match. What started as Arsenal domination culminated in an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain own goal and a sloppy performance that saw Olivier Giroud sent off for dissent. The Gunners will be desperate to get their first win in the competition and Arsene Wenger knows his side can ill-afford another such night. Olympiakos suffered a 3-0 defeat against Bayern Munich and will be in for another difficult night given their record at the Emirates. The Greek champions haven’t beaten Arsenal at home in three attempts with Wenger’s side victorious every time. Theo Walcott will lead the line of attack in Giroud’s absence and will offer an abundance of pace and energy up front. Arsenal are tipped to bounce back strong with a commanding performance for the home faithful.
Bayern Munich 1/10
Dinamo Zagreb 23/1
Bayern Munich and Dinamo Zagreb will meet for the first time at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday night. The Bavarians got their Champions League campaign off to a flying start with Thomas Muller scoring twice to take down Greek powerhouse Olympiakos 3-0 on the road. The result, combined with Arsenal's collapse at Dinamo Zagreb, gives the Bavarians a huge advantage and could mean they wrap up qualification to the knockout rounds faster than even anticipated. Pep Guardiola has a luxury of world-class players at his disposal like Manuel Neuer, Arjen Robben, Robert Lewandowski, and Arturo Vidal to name a few. Bayern are a certainty to win the match but for more value I’m backing them to Score In Both Halves at 5/10.
Bayer Leverkusen 62/10
Barcelona could only manage a 1-1 draw away at Roma in their opening group match as Luis Suarez's opener was cancelled out by Alessandro Florenzi's audacious equaliser. However, a draw away at Roma is hardly a disastrous result and Luis Enrique's side will undoubtedly improve at home against Bayer Leverkusen. The Germans are coming off a comfortable 4-1 win over BATE Borisov thanks to a brace from Hakan Calhanoglu, but Roger Schmidt’s side will need a special performance to upset the defending champions on their turf. The Catalans are unbeaten in their last eleven home matches in the Champions League with ten victories, including six in a row. The question for Leverkusen is how to limit the damage imposed by Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. The Catalans have a good chance at becoming the first team to win the Champions League in back-to-back seasons as any team in the past two decades. Barcelona are blessed with an abundance of attacking talent with Messi, Suarez and Neymar leading a lethal team that is superior to Leverkusen in all departments. Barca have won their last five encounters against Leverkusen with their last meeting ending in a 7-1 scoreline. With very little value on the home win, I’m going for Barca to Win By Three Or More Goals at 23/10.
BATE Borisov 33/10
BATE’s 4-1 thrashing by Leverkusen justified their status as the group’s playtoy and if Roma play as well as they did against Barcelona then they should be in for a comfortable evening in Belarus. The Giallorossi held the defending champions to a 1-1 draw at the Stadio Olimpico thanks to a wonder goal by right-back Florenzi. With the ball at his feet near the right touchline just inside Barcelona's half, Florenzi blasted a shot over the head of Marc-Andre ter Stegen, off the woodwork and into the net. At more than fifty yards, it was one of the most audacious and well-taken goals you're ever likely to see. More importantly for Roma, the goal secured a draw with last year's winners. Rudi Garcia’s side appears vastly improved from last season when they were routed 7-1 at home by Bayern Munich. The Giallorossi have already beaten four-time defending champions Juventus 2-1 in Serie A. With an impressive array of new players in Edin Dzeko, Iago Falque, Antonio Rudiger, Lucas Digne, Mohamed Salah and Wojciech Szczesny, Roma look very strong in every position. The away win is a banker bet at 17/20.
Wednesday 30 September 2015
Borussia Monchengladbach 31/10
Manchester City 17/20
Manchester City face fellow first-day losers Borussia Monchengladbach for what is already a critical match. Gladbach had a harsh return to Europe's top club competition. The team that finished third in the Bundesliga last season suffered a 3-0 defeat to Sevilla on Matchday 1. Gladbach brought the game to the Europa League winners in the opening stages, but in the end were ineffectual up front and had a disillusioning second half, for much of which they rode their luck. Gladbach lost their first five matches in the Bundesliga and things don’t look good for Lucien Favre’s team as they face England’s table-toppers, Manchester City. After a very promising start, City reverted to the Champions League form of years past, losing 2-1 to Juventus despite grabbing the game’s first goal and looking superior for the bulk of the match. Juventus' victory may have resembled a smash-and-grab raid, but it has happened before. City are still playing a steep learning game against the cream of Europe and have failed their exams so far. Manuel Pellegrini will be looking for a positive response and a high tempo performance from his side. With Gladbach struggling to find their rhythm and the superpowers of David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne, City should get the victory here.
Last year’s Champions League finalists showed their true colours against Manchester City in their opening game. Following a difficult start in the league, many were quick to write them off —myself included— in a match against the current Premier League leaders but despite the criticisms and the piling pressure, the Bianconeri executed Massimiliano Allegri's tactics perfectly to register their first European win of the season. After conceding the opener, goals from Mario Mandzukic and Alvaro Morata proved to be enough for Juve to topple Manchester City 2-1. The feeling of winning would have surely reminded Juventus of what they’re used to and they’ll be desperate to stick to the formula. Their chances of doing so look very good especially as they’ll be playing at the Juventus Stadium – where they went unbeaten last season from nineteen games with sixteen wins. Sevilla are a good attacking team that will be confident following their 3-0 win over Monchengladbach. Los Rojiblancos love to test themselves against football giants but with the real Juventus back to business, it will be a difficult task. Paul Pogba looks to be proving himself as a world-class footballer and even Juan Cuadrado looks like his old self again. Juventus are tipped to reign victorious at 17/20.
Atletico Madrid 11/20
Atletico Madrid welcome Benfica to the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday in what should be an entertaining matchup. Both teams are coming off 2-0 wins over Astana and Galatasaray respectively. Antoine Griezmann scored twice in the first half to help Atletico to victory over Galatasaray in Istanbul while Nicolas Gaitan and Kostas Mitroglou got the goals in Benfica’s win over new boys Astana. Atleti are a difficult team to beat and with home advantage, it will take a special performance from Rui Vitoria’s side. Diego Simeone has an extremely talented squad at his disposal with the likes of Griezmann, Koke, Diego Godin and Fernando Torres. I’m going for the home win at 11/20.
Astana suffered a 2-0 defeat against Benfica on Matchday 1 but there were some positives for a team that made history by becoming the first Kazakh side to take part in the competition. The Kazakhstan champions have a never-say-die spirit and they showed that they can be bold and aggressive, but are also capable of cautious play. Stanimir Stoilov's men will now be targeting their first win in the Champions League and they’ll fancy their chances against the Turks. Galatasaray failed to win for the ninth consecutive match in the Champions League, losing 2-0 to Atletico Madrid. The Turkish champions have quality players in Wesley Sneijder, Lukas Podolski, Kevin Grosskreutz and Burak Yilmaz, but they seem to be suffering from an identity crisis. The draw looks the likely outcome at 22/10.
Manchester United 15/20
Manchester United suffered an ignominious return to Champions League football, losing 2-1 to Dutch champions PSV in a game that also saw defender Luke Shaw suffer a horrific double fracture of his right leg. The injury will come as a huge blow to United and England after the 20-year-old had started the season strongly. United will be looking to return to form and will need their best players to be their best players. There’s real quality in this United team with David de Gea, Juan Mata, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Wayne Rooney who are all among the biggest names in world football today. Wolfsburg ousted CSKA Moscow thanks to a sole strike from new arrival Julian Draxler and Dieter Hecking’s men will be looking to inflict more damage to United’s chances of progressing further in the competition. The Wolves are gifted in attack with Draxler, Max Kruse, Bas Dost, Nicklas Bendtner and Andre Schurrle – United know all about him. Louis van Gaal’s men have won both their meetings against Wolfsburg and you’d expect them to claim maximum points here, but Both Teams To Score is a safer option at 15/20.
CSKA Moscow 15/20
PSV Eindhoven 7/2
PSV upset the odds by coming from behind to beat Manchester United 2-1 in an entertaining encounter in Eindhoven. This time they’ll need to spring another surprise by being the first team to beat CSKA Moscow on their turf. The Russians are extremely difficult to beat at the Arena Khimki having won four of their first five matches in their domestic league. These sides were drawn in the same group in the 2007/2008 tournament with PSV winning both ties 2-1 and 1-0 in Moscow. Phillip Cocu has assembled a very young and talented squad with future stars in Jeffrey Bruma, Luciano Narsingh, Gaston Pereiro and Maxime Lestienne. There are always upsets in the Champions League and PSV are well worth a punt at 7/2.
Real Madrid 2/9
Swedish champions Malmo will have little expectations of upsetting ten-time European winners Real Madrid when they meet on Wednesday. Malmo coach Age Hareide took the positives from his side's 2-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in their opening game, reiterating his belief that they will fight for third place. The Swedish side were beaten by goals from Angel di Maria and Edinson Cavani at the Parc des Princes but it was only until the Uruguayan struck after the hour-mark that the visitors were put to bed. Malmo will face a daunting test against Real Madrid with Cristiano Ronaldo enjoying a scoring spree. The Portuguese moved in front of Messi as the top goalscorer in Champions League history with a hat-trick as Real Madrid opened their European campaign with a 4-0 win over ten-man Shakhtar Donetsk. Ronaldo scored twice from the penalty spot before heading home to complete his second hat-trick in four days (after scoring five against Espanyol) and take his tally in the competition to eighty, three ahead of his Barcelona rival. Rafa Benitez will be confident of victory here and with Ronaldo in top form, Los Blancos should win quite comfortably. Real Madrid to Score In Both Halves is the bet at 13/20.
Shakhtar Donetsk 7/2
Paris Saint-Germain 8/10
Shakhtar Donetsk were on the receiving end of the genius of Ronaldo and had to play with a man short for the last forty minutes of the match following the sending off of Taras Stepanenko. The Ukrainian side actually started the game quite well, with Alex Teixeira and Taison causing problems with their pace and movement in the final third. But it was only a matter of time until Madrid stepped up a gear and made the extra man count. Strong results at home will be vital to Shakhtar’s chances of finishing in the top two and they will have the chance to put it right at home to PSG. Laurent Blanc’s side ousted Malmo 2-0 with goals from Cavani and Di Maria – the Argentine’s first goal for the club following his expensive move from Manchester United. The French champions will be looking to keep up with Real Madrid the whole way in a bid for top spot and will rely on their deadly trio of Cavani, Di Maria and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to produce the goods up front. It won’t come easy but PSG’s quality should see them come away with maximum points.