Ajax to make hard work of another qualifier

Ajax to make hard work of another qualifier

26/07/2016

Sparta Prague 1.63 v Steaua Bucharest 7.00; The Draw 3.95

Friendly form should never be taken as more than a guide, but it suggests that Steaua Bucharest are heading into this tie with more momentum as, while they have been busy beating the best that the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia and Greece have to offer, Sparta Prague have been losing to sides from Slovakia, Switzerland and Russia.

Additionally, the Czechs have progressed from just one of their last four Champions League double headers, not sampling the group stage since 2005 and exiting in this exact round in 2014/15 and 2015/16, suffering two reverses in four as hosts in the competition.

By contrast, their guests got through three preliminary rounds all the way to the tournament proper as recently as three summers ago and have come through their first challenge in all eight of their Champions League participations this century.

Recommended Bet: Lay Sparta Prague to win @ 1.64


Ajax 1.72 v PAOK 5.90; The Draw 3.90

It isn't only in Czech Republic where clear odd-on favourites look vulnerable, as Ajax do not have a recent Champions League record which inspires faith in their ability to dismiss PAOK.

The Dutch giants haven't cleared a round of Europe's premier competition since 2010. That wasn't so disastrous when they were Eredivisie title holders four years in a row, thereby earning direct group-stage access, yet the situation escalated last year when they were back in the qualifiers and fell to Rapid Vienna, drawing 2-2 in Austria before losing 3-2 at home.

PAOK have previous when it comes to unnerving the capital club, pushing them to the limit in 1-1 and 3-3 draws in 2010/11 and being denied on away goals. They haven't been defeated on either of their two trips abroad in it since and reached the Europa League group stage last term, beating Borussia Dortmund 1-0 in Germany.

Recommended Bet: Lay Ajax to win @ 1.73


Shakhtar 1.46 v Young Boys 8.20; The Draw 4.90

The resilience of Shakhtar is something to be admired. You can take their star players and you can even take their stadium, but you can't take their Champions League place, with last season the sixth in a row in which they were involved in the group phase. On half of those, they went even further.

This will be the toughest moment yet as now, as well as playing in Lviv and not having as decorated a cast as at various points in the recent past, they have lost their one magnificent constant, with coach Mircea Lucescu leaving for Zenit St Petersburg after 12 years and being replaced by Paolo Fonseca.

It isn't all bad news though, with their first obstacle a conquerable one. Young Boys have not merely lost three of their past four Champions League games on their travels, they did so convincingly, failing to fire and giving up three or four goals each time.

There were one club or fewer on the scoresheet in ten of Shakhtar's last 12 Champions League encounters, indicating that there is wisdom in opposing both teams to score.

Recommended Bet: Back both teams to score? No @ 1.82

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