Europa League Tips: Don't expect Dragao drama

The Europa League playoff round has some fascinating ties to look forward to, and Kevin Hatchard has picked out four selections...

Big guns to keep powder dry

Porto v Lazio
Thursday 17 February, 20:00
Live on BT Sport

Sergio Conceicao is the dominant figure in this Europa League playoff. He represented Lazio with distinction as a player, and also had two spells as a winger with Porto. However, it is as a coach with the Dragons that he has really excelled. Conceicao has delivered two league titles and a Taca de Portugal, and he has also overseen a famous Champions League knockout victory over Juventus.

Conceicao was an enterprising player who loved to attack, and while his Porto side does have thrilling moments going forward, they are chiefly known as an uber-competitive unit that doesn't give much away. In the Primeira Liga, which they lead by six points from champions Sporting, they have leaked just 16 goals in 22 games, and four of their six UCL games this term featured fewer than three goals.

Lazio like to play attacking football under coach Maurizio Sarri, but they have been more circumspect than you might have expected in Europe. Four of their six UEL group games saw an Under 2.5 Goals bet land, and only one of those saw both teams find the net.

Porto have been shorn of the explosive attacking talent that is Luis Diaz, and Conceicao will have respect for his old side. I'll happily back Under 2.5 Goals here at evens.

Sevilla begin another UEL quest

Sevilla v Dinamo Zagreb
Thursday 17 February, 20:00
Live on BT Sport

Sevilla's love affair with the Europa League is one of the most well-known tales in 21st-century football. The Andalusians have won the tournament a remarkable six times since the turn of the millennium (including UEFA Cups), most recently in 2020, when they defeated Antonio Conte's Inter in the final. Having distinctly underwhelmed in an eminently winnable Champions League group, Sevilla are back in familiar territory.

However, Sevilla don't usually have to balance a Europa League push with a La Liga title challenge, but with just four points separating them from the leaders Real Madrid, that's their situation. The team selection for this first UEL game against Dinamo Zagreb could be quite instructive in terms of how seriously coach Julen Lopetegui is taking the tournament.

Dinamo weren't particularly impressive in the group stage, but they have reeled off six wins in a row in the Croatian top flight, and UEL victories over Spurs and a weakened West Ham in recent campaigns show they are no pushovers. Keeping the talented Mislav Orsic out of Premier League clutches in the winter window was a surprising achievement which could help them to domestic glory.

However, Sevilla's home record is excellent. They have only lost once all season at the Sanchez Pizjuan, and they have won 10 of their 15 home matches. Only two of those home wins have gone over the 3.5 goals line, and I'll go for Sevilla to win and Under 3.5 Goals at 1.91 on the Sportsbook.

Worth opposing Russian hosts

Zenit v Betis
Thursday 17 February, 17:45
Live on BT Sport

It's been a while since a Russian or Ukrainian side made a genuine impact in the latter stages of a European competition. Shakhtar won the UEFA Cup in 2009, Zenit won it a year earlier, and Dnipro reached the final of the Europa League in 2015. The last Russian teams to get to the quarter-finals of the UCL were Rubin Kazan and CSKA Moscow, who both reached the last eight in 2010.

One of the chief reasons for this is that the domestic seasons in eastern Europe are somewhat out of step with the return to knockout football in UEFA competitions. For example, Zenit haven't played a league game since mid-December. To make matters worse, they lost influential Iranian forward Sardar Azmoun to Bayer Leverkusen.

Unlike Zenit, Betis should be pretty sharp, and they have risen into the top three in La Liga. Manuel Pellegrini's men are on a roll, having won six of their last seven competitive matches, including a stunning 4-0 Copa del Rey win at Real Sociedad. They have scored 24 goals across their last nine outings.

Betis are the slight outsiders here, and admittedly they haven't played particularly well on the road in this competition, but I think they seem in far better shape than Zenit at this precise moment. I'll back the visitors Draw No Bet at 2.02.

Greeks won't come bearing gifts

Atalanta v Olympiakos
Thursday 17 February, 20:00
Live on BT Sport

Atalanta have been a breath of fresh air in recent years, but while they continue to punch above their weight, they aren't currently doing it with their usual panache. They have managed creditable draws with Inter, Juventus and Lazio recently, but they lost at home to Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia and went down 2-1 at home go to struggling Cagliari in Serie A.

Gian Piero Gasperini's side is still a thrilling side to watch at times, but they miss the sheer unpredictability of Papu Gomez, who joined Sevilla, and Josip Ilicic, who has struggled with his mental health. Bustling striker Duvan Zapata is currently injured, and Atalanta have only scored multiple goals in three of their last nine games.

Olympiakos struggled without several players who went to the African Cup of Nations, but they have put together a four-match winning streak going into this game. The signing of Kostas Manolas has improved their defensive line, and the establishment of a nine-point lead at the top of the Greek Super League means they can give this a proper go.

I'll give the Greek giants a goal start on the Asian Handicap at 2.09. Atalanta have only won by a multiple-goal margin in five of their last 22 competitive outings.

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