We take a look at three of the biggest ties from this Thursday's upcoming Europa League fixtures.
It’s easy to forget that the Europa League returns this Thursday with all of the hoo-hah surrounding the Round of 16 Champions League ties.
We’re into the round of 32 now as the best of the rest battle it out for automatic qualification into the Champions League and a bit of silverware for the end of the season.
Thursday 16 February
Celta Vigo 16/10 | Draw 9/4 | Shakhtar Donetsk 33/20
The Spaniards come into this game off the back of some pretty average results. Ever since their 4-3 aggregate win over Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey, the men from Galicia have faltered a bit, dropping points in the league and bombing out of the cup in a shock defeat to Alaves.
The Europa League now offers Eduardo Berizzo’s men their last realistic shot at silverware this season. If they are to make it into the latter stages of this competition, they’ll need to outscore their opposition rather than look to keep clean sheets. They’re defensively frail and have relied heavily on goals scored by Iago Aspas this season.
Shakhtar – as expected – are well clear at the summit of the Ukrainian Premier League. They’ve blown away all who stand in their way in both the Europa League and in domestic competition.
Having said that, they’ve not played a competitive game since their 4-3 win over Dynamo Kyiv on December 12. They’ve got a quality squad brimming with Ukrainian talent with a healthy sprinkling of South American prospects. I just worry for them – lacking match fitness against a side who play in arguably Europe’s top league. That said, they have a certain pedigree in this competition and will be looking to add to the title they won in 2009 against Werder Bremen.
I’ll be backing Celta here purely due to the fact that the Ukrainians have been out of competitive action since the middle of December. Get on the home side at 16/10.
Villarreal 31/20 | Draw 22/10 | Roma 7/4
This one is arguably the pick of the round of 32 ties. Last season’s semi-finalists, Villarreal welcome Italian Giants, Roma to El Madrigal in what should prove to be a fantastic tie over two legs. The hosts come into this match off the back of some iffy league form but will be looking to lay down a marker in Europe.
They’ve got the squad to do just that although injuries to key players like Nicola Sansone (knee) and Mateo Musacchio (wrist) could derail their chances against an outstanding Roma team. Manager Fran Escribá is a shrewd tactician, however, and always seems to get the best out of his squad for the big matches – just ask the likes of Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla who have all dropped points against the Yellow Submarine over the last few weeks.
He’ll need all of that tactical nous to get one over Luciano Spalletti’s Roma squad. Captained by the evergreen Francesco Totti, the men from the Italian capital will look to put this tie to bed in the first leg.
The Italians possess an abundance of attacking threats with Edin Dzeko (18), Radja Nainggolan (6) and Mohamed Salah (8) sharing 32 goals between them in all competitions this season. The Italians’ attacking prowess is built around an uncompromising defensive system which employs three centre-halves – Antonio Rudiger, Konstantinos Manolas and Federico Fazio – to great effect.
Roma have won seven of their last eight games in all competitions scoring 20 times and only conceding five. The men from Italy have to be backed here despite Villarreal being price up as favourites. Roma at 7/4 is an absolute gift – get on!
Manchester United 3/10 | Draw 4/1 | St-Étienne 17/2
It’s Pogba vs Pogba as Paul welcomes his eldest brother, Florentin to Old Trafford. While it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the battle of the Pogbas, both teams will need to remember that there is still a two-legged match to win.
United are easily the favourites heading into this match and the betting reflects that. Four wins from their last six games in all competitions suggest that the Mancunians should stroll past their more unfancied French opposition. However, we need to remember that United are still fighting on four fronts: Premier League, EFL Cup, FA Cup as well as the Premier League.
Jose Mourinho will need to properly manage his players in the coming weeks or risk finishing outside of the top four in the league as well as crashing out the cups. Expect to see some of the fringe players to get a run against St. Étienne. Marcus Rashford, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Luke Shaw and Sergio Romero have all found themselves on the periphery of late and could be thrust into action this Thursday.
While a far cry from the all-conquering side of the 60's and 70's, Christophe Galtier knows that his side can make history by beating Manchester United in the first ever competitive meeting between the two sides.
Les Verts have the perfect opportunity to do just that. They’ve been solid domestically and sit fifth after 25 games, having conceded a meagre 19 goals – the second best defensive record in the league behind PSG. It’s also worth mentioning that they topped their Europa League group without tasting defeat.
The French minnows will have full faith in their back four and could well come away with draw at the Theatre of Dreams.
It’s a pretty left-field call, but I think that the French side could spring a surprise against an under-strength United side. Back St-Étienne on the Win/Draw double chance at 43/20.
Treble tipped at 21.96/1
Celta Vigo Win 33/20
Roma Win 7/4
St-Étienne Win/Draw 43/20