Tonight’s Europa League action offers the possibility of four UK teams qualifying for the group stages of the competition, or potentially none at all (outwith, at least, Manchester United and Arsenal who are automatic inclusions). Each of the sides turning out this evening has its own varying level of hope, from Wolves who went to Torino last week and won to Linfield, who take a one goal lead to Azerbaijan but face a much better-resourced side than them in Qarabag. The Belfast side could make history this evening by becoming the first Northern Irish club to reach the group stages of a European competition, but seeing out the ninety minutes will be tough.
As well as the West Midlands and South Belfast, there will be keen attention paid to tonight’s matches in Glasgow. Three days before the season’s first Old Firm game, both Celtic and Rangers will be hoping to secure a spot in the Europa League main draw. The Light Blues went to Warsaw and came back with a 0-0 scoreline; any win tonight will see them through, while any non-goalless draw will end their involvement. Celtic hold a 2-0 lead over Sweden’s AIK, but their variable European form – especially on the road – means that they can’t consider themselves comfortable until, at the very least, they score an away goal. Below, we go through the potential bets to be made on tonight’s action and the ties overall.
Nuno’s men to finish the job
Wolves’ first-leg victory over Torino was genuinely impressive given the fact that this is their first European campaign in 38 years, and winning away at a more-than-decent Serie A side is something that has often been beyond more experienced teams. Had it not been for a late penalty, they would have brought a two-goal lead back to the Black Country with them and been all but guaranteed a place in the next round. As it is, they’ll need to avoid complacency, while also coping with a heavy schedule that means tonight’s game is their eighth in August (compare that to fellow Premier League side Arsenal, who will have played three all month).
The top-flight sophomores are well positioned to complete the job; Torino realistically need to overcome them by a margin of two given the three away goals Nuno Espirito Santo’s men notched last week. This means that Torino need to get forward early, and against a team with the counter-attacking chops of Wolves, that could well lead to them getting picked off. At 14/5 with 888, it is well worth getting on Both Teams To Score and Wolves to win, thus securing their place in the group stages.
Old Firm; both, one, or neither?
The next few days could place Celtic or Rangers fans in either the best or worst of moods. The chance of one side falling out of Europe entirely and then losing an Old Firm game is very real. For Celtic there is the added sense that the club hasn’t strengthened enough in the transfer market, particularly given the money-spinning departure of Kieran Tierney. With the money that has been available to address holes in the first XI, Champions League qualification should not have been out of the question. Missing out on the Europa League would be seen as disastrous.
Both Celtic and Rangers have their fate in their own hands, but in both cases there is what the British Board of Film Classification would refer to as “Mild Peril”. Celtic are more than capable of losing from a winnable position, while Rangers would feel a lot more reassured had they scored in Poland – any score draw tonight will see them eliminated. Nonetheless, both sides should win; but with Rangers heavily favoured by the bookies, backing Celtic to grab a rare away win might be an idea. Last week at Celtic Park, AIK’s “we’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas” attack seemed like it could have played for 900 minutes and not scored. 13/10 for Celtic at Betway is a bet worth making.
Can Linfield make history?
Northern Irish clubs’ European campaigns typically are like a 35-degree heatwave; painful to live through and over by early August. Often, NIFL sides are knocked out by opposition from Wales, or Malta, and never do they find themselves one game away from the draw proper. But here Linfield are, facing Qarabag with a 3-2 advantage from the first leg. While the Azeri champions may not be moneybags by modern football standards – they feature two players in their squad who cost upwards of a million pounds – they’re far richer than Linfield, whose record signing, Glenn Ferguson, arrived for £55,000 in 1999.
Managed by former Northern Ireland international David Healy, the Blues find themselves on the brink of making history, and of realising a windfall beyond their wildest dreams. However, tonight they’ll need to achieve something perhaps more impressive than the win last week in Belfast: they must – realistically – avoid defeat against a side who, for what it’s worth, sit above Milan in the UEFA rankings. (If Linfield lose 4-3, they progress – but that’s vanishingly unlikely for many reasons). However, no-one would have expected them to score three against Qarabag at all – and had it not been for a late spot-kick in Belfast, the game would have ended 3-1. So it might be worth a small punt on Healy’s men, at 4/1 with William Hill, to progress, and write another little bit of history that would be worth at least forty Glenn Fergusons to them. They certainly won’t be intimidated by the task.
Bets of the Day
Wolves to win and BTTS (888, 16/5); Celtic to win (Betway, 13/10); Linfield to progress (William Hill, 4/1)