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With a quartet of beautifully poised last eight clashes taking place across the continent on Thursday night, the UEFA Europa League will be well worth taking an interest in.
Ahead of these appetizing quarter-final second legs, Adrian Clarke runs us through his selections…
Zlatan & Rashford to send United through
Manchester United v Anderlecht (1-1) | 20th April 20:05
Zlatan and Rashford up top? That’s the kind of pre-match team news that will have 70-odd thousand Manchester United fans inside Old Trafford, salivating ahead of kick off.
Will Jose Mourinho give that pairing a bash?
He probably should do after the success of his twin strike force against Chelsea last weekend, and with Ibrahimovic nicely rested for this occasion and his 19-year-old striker full of beans, it could be an explosive partnership that’s too hot for Anderlecht to handle.
Punters clearly believe the veteran Swede will have his say at the Theatre of Dreams. No doubt slightly riled by being benched on Sunday, Ibrahimovic is rated a 17/25 shot to add to his five goals in the Europa League so far this season.
In truth Leander Dendoncker’s late leveler in Belgium last week skewed what had been a fairly one-sided contest. But for some profligate finishing Manchester United would have put this tie to bed long before the final whistle blew in Brussels.
One slight concern for Mourinho and co is that the 33-time Belgian champions are decent on the road. They’ve scored in all six of their European away games in 2016-17, losing just once.
While I feel it’s more likely the hosts will keep a clean sheet, attacking midfielder Nicolae Stanciu (four goals in the competition) offers a spot of value at 8/1 to notch at anytime.
I have to lean towards a second professional victory inside a few days for United though. They were superb against Chelsea, and with the bit between their teeth I expect them to build on that with another solid success.
There have been Under 2.5 goals in the last four Europa League games for Manchester United, and the last three for Anderlecht, so I’ll be tipping that at 33/25, as well as the 2-0 win, which comes in at 23/4.
With a resurgent Rashford surely in line for another big match start, there’s also a temptation to push the boat out and back the teenager to score first in a 2-0 win. At 15/1 it’s a price that appeals.
The hosts are the superior side, and should progress with relative ease.
Underdogs Genk can finish the job on home soil
Genk v Celta de Vigo (2-3) | 20th April 20:05
Thomas Buffel’s 67th minute goal to reduce the arrears to 3-2 in Spain last Thursday has swung this tie dramatically in Genk’s favour.
I actually find it hard to believe Celta de Vigo are just 3/8 to progress to the last four. Needing just a low scoring one-goal victory on home soil, this season’s surprise package look terrific value at 9/5 to go through.
Since playing their first Europa League qualifier last July, the Jupiler Pro League outfit have been involved in eight encounters at their Luminus Arena, winning seven and drawing once. En route to this stage they have shipped just TWO goals in front of their own fans!
Make no mistake though; the Spaniard’s are taking this game seriously. Head coach Eduardo Berizzo rested an entire team at Granada last weekend, specifically with this second leg in mind.
They’re also buoyant on the back of a wonderful series of victories away from home. Winning 2-0 at Panathinaikos, Shakhtar Donetsk and Krasnodar, marks them down as a well-drilled team with plenty of character. The odds on another 0-2 success are 15/1.
This tie is hard to call. Could go either way.
It should be Dutch delight in the quarters
Schalke 04 v Ajax (0-2) | 20th April 20:05
The Germans began this last eight clash as the fancied side, but after being comprehensively outplayed a week ago they now have a mountain to climb.
Ajax boast a youthful side that’s full of energy, skill and goals at the moment; so much so that Dutch fans are suddenly feeling optimistic that a Europa League final is within reach.
They’re not brilliant travellers though. You have to go all the way back to September for Ajax’s last away win in Europe, which is why Schalke 04 or the Draw is priced up at 1/4 ahead of kick off.
Who’ll get their name on the score sheet?
For the hosts, in-form front man Guido Bergstaller is 41/10 for the first goal, and Bertrand Traore is somebody I’d be looking at to nick an away goal on the break. The 21-year-old, on loan from Chelsea, is 13/5 to score at anytime.
Could be a long night in Istanbul
Besiktas v Lyon (1-2) | 20th April 20:05
You’ve got to feel sorry for Lyon’s players at the moment.
They had to contend with a Besiktas fan invading the pitch in last week’s first leg – on an evening marred by violent clashes between fans – and then at the weekend their Ligue 1 clash with Bastia was abandoned after rival fans tried to attack them.
Will they be in the right frame of mind this evening?
With the atmosphere likely to be at boiling point in Istanbul, and the Turkish champions an under-estimated side at this level, I’d certainly lean towards a win for the home team.
The Over 2.5 goals market (1/2) is one you may want to get stuck into. Nine of Lyon’s last 10 Europa League games, and five of Besiktas’ last six, have featured three or more goals.
I could see this one heading towards extra time with a 90-minute score of 2-1 (9/1) the only way that can happen. Don’t be shocked if we go to a shoot-out.