We’re almost at the point where we know the identities of the 32 teams who will battle it out in the Champions League group phase. The final set of qualifiers, of which the first legs take place this week, will separate those who will compete in the continent’s finest competition from those who, erm, won’t.
For both Liverpool and Celtic, Britain’s two entrants at this stage of the tournament, Champions League football is essential. Without it, the Reds will certainly struggle to attract the kind of quality players they need, while another campaign of mere domestic success will not cut it for a club desperate to be taken seriously on the European stage.
Both face tough assignments this week, so where does the smart Champions League betting value lie?
The Brits Are Coming
It has been a week of disappointment for Liverpool, all told. After being told by Philippe Coutinho that he wants to leave the club and move to Barcelona, the Reds could only summon a point from their opening Premier League trip to Watford.
Their defensive frailties were once again laid bare, with an inability to deal with crosses into the box becoming an altogether too-familiar problem.
On Tuesday night they travel to Germany to take on Hoffenheim, who finished fourth in the Bundesliga in 201617 and for whom this is their first foray into the Champions League in the club’s history.
There’s bound to be nerves for the hosts, but with a front three comprising Serge Gnabry, Andrei Kramaric and Sandro Wagner, plus an unerring ability to score from set pieces (nobody bagged more in Germany’s top flight last term), Hoffenheim are well placed here.
They remained unbeaten on home soil all of last season, and it would be an eyebrow-raiser if this Liverpool side – sublime going forward but wretched at the back – can upset the applecart. Hoffenheim, at the Draw No Bet mark of 11/10, are the value.
Britain’s other entrant at this stage of the competition is Celtic, who have been handed a tricky assignment over two legs against Astana starting on Wednesday.
The Bhoys have started the campaign in strong fashion with a pair of wins in the Scottish Premiership and victories over Rosenburg and Linfield in the Champions League qualifiers, and the knowledge they beat Astana at this stage of the tournament last year – 2-1 in the home leg – will add confidence.
Astana are a solid enough side but their appearance in the Champions League is lucky to an extent, in that the Kazakhstan Premier League is not a hotbed of European footballing talent. Their away form in qualifiers for this competition reads W1 D4 L4, and an inability to score goals (just four bagged in those nine) is a sign of their negative approach on the road and perhaps a lack of quality.
Brendan Rodgers will miss the injured Moussa Dembele, but Celtic Park is built for big European nights like this and the Hoops look a tinge of value at even money to win and the game to witness Under 3.5 goals.
The Best of the Rest
Those Azerbaijanis are renowned for their footballing excellence, and all joking aside their premier outfit Qarabag are a tricky bunch; they are unbeaten at home in their last eight Champions League qualifiers (W4 D4 L0). They’ve kept a remarkable six clean sheets in that run, and Tuesday’s opponents, FC Copenhagen, have sold their star striker, Andreas Cornelius, to Atalanta. Under 2.5 Goals, which has landed in 4/5 Copenhagen matches this term and 5/6 Qarabag’s last half-dozen home Champions League games, seems fair game at 1/2.
Sporting Lisbon have started like a train in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, winning 2-0 and 1-0 but their shot data suggesting a pair of good old thrashings were possible. They welcome Steaua Bucharest on Tuesday, and while the Romanians managed a narrow 0-1 defeat to Manchester City at this stage of the Champion League 12 months ago, that was after the Citizens had already won 5-0 in Romania. Sporting will want to build a handsome lead in this first leg, so we’re taking them with a -1 handicap at 10/11.
There isn’t much value around in Wednesday ties bar Celtic, so we’re going to take a flyer on Sevilla at 5/4 away at Istanbul Basaksehir.
It’s been a strange old transfer window for the Spaniards, who have lost defensive lynchpin Adil Rami and Vicente Iborra but brought in some talented attacking players in Ever Banega, Luis Muriel and even the much maligned Nolito, who enjoyed a couple of fine seasons in La Liga with Celta Vigo prior to joining Manchester City.
Turkey is a tough place to go traditionally, and Sevilla will miss Jorge Sampaoli who has left to coach Argentina. But, in crude terms, 5/4 on Spain’s fourth best team against Turkey’s second best seems fair game.