Mark O’Haire’s European Football Bets – Sunday

Both Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund are accustomed to Champions League nights in February but the duo were involved in Europa League action on Thursday evening.

Bayer Leverkusen v Borussia Dortmund, Sunday 21 February 2016 (14.30), BT Sport Europe
With little over 48 hours rest, they must now lock horns in the Bundesliga’s most eye-catching weekend fixture.

Leverkusen sit third, just a place behind Dortmund in the standings, but a huge 13 points separates the sides. The visitors have bounced back from last season’s horror show in fascinating fashion under the astute leadership of Thomas Tuchel.

The Black & Yellows have accumulated the most points (48) of any second-placed side in the history of the league after 21 games. In fact, 42 of the previous 52 German champions had fewer points at this stage, including Dortmund themselves in four of their five title-winning campaigns. No wonder that 13-point gap is the largest it’s ever been at the 21-match mark.

BVB have been chalked up as 21/20 shots to claim maximum points here and having avoided defeat at the BayArena in each of their last eight visits (W3-D5-L0), will have their backers on Sunday.

But Leverkusen appear to have found their stride in 2016. Thursday’s professional and impressive performance when clinching a 1-0 win at Sporting Lisbon was eye-catching but so was their fully deserved 0-0 draw with all-conquering Bayern Munich here earlier this month.

Since Roger Schmidt arrived at the club, Die Werkself have specialised in playing the bigger Bundesliga sides at the BayArena too. That stalemate against Bayern made it W5-D3-L1 when hosting top-six sides with five clean sheets to their name across those nine outings.

Bayer have suffered just three losses in 31 home matches now and are also enjoying their best run of results in the league this term. It might only be a six-game streak (W4-D2-L0) but Leverkusen have shipped just two goals in that time and addressed their dreadful set-piece defensive record too – 11 of their 22 goals conceded have arrived from set-piece situations.

Tiredness may well come into play here but I’m not prepared to oppose the hosts at chunky prices.

The 3/4 on offer for Leverkusen in the Double Chance market arguably makes the most appeal

– for all Dortmund’s fabulous progress under Tuchel, they’ve failed to win five of their 11 away league games including four of their seven against clubs in 11th and above.

Recommended Bets
Bayer Leverkusen – Double Chance (3/4)

Atletico Madrid v Villarreal, Sunday 21 February 2016 (19.30), Sky Sports 3
Barcelona’s midweek win at Sporting Gijon stretched the Catalans’ advantage at the top of the La Liga table to six points but with a superior head-to-head record against Atletico Madrid, the lead is essentially seven.

It would take a brave punter to oppose the defending champions now but Atletico will continue to push the Bluagrana until the season’s end. And Diego Simeone’s side have two huge league fixtures on their plate across the next seven days that could make-or-break their pursuit.

On Sunday the Mattress Makers entertain Villarreal before visiting the Bernabeu next weekend to face their fierce city rivals Real Madrid. Sandwiched between those two contests is a trip to PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League so it’s important Los Rojiblancos pick up a positive result at Vicente Calderon on Sunday evening.

I’d expect Atletico to edge out Villarreal. Barcelona are the only side in the last 22 La Liga games to be played at the Calderon to depart with maximum points. And since Simeone arrived, the Mattress Makers have W16-D6-L2 when welcoming top-half clubs that aren’t Barca or Real.

However, with restrictive odds on offer and a couple of question marks requiring answering, I’m not willing to put my faith in the home side.

Atleti’s normally solid, stable and resilient defence has creaked in recent weeks, returning just two shutouts from five and this weekend they’re missing stalwart centre-half Jose Gimenez through suspension. Stefan Savic is an able replacement but he’s not close to the absent Uruguayan’s level.

Going forward, hitman Antoine Griezmann is four games without a goal and with Yannick Ferreira Carrasco now out long-term and Thomas Partey a doubt, Atletico need to address their forward options. It’s obviously a concern if Fernando Torres with two goals in two is your most in-form striker.

Visitors Villarreal delighted their fans with a hard-earned 1-0 Europa League win against Napoli at El Madrigal on Thursday night. Denis Suarez’s stunning free-kick gave Marcelinho’s men the first leg lead and in La Liga form the Yellow Submarine are enjoying their best ever campaign at this stage of a season.

The guests are unbeaten in 11 (W8-D3-L0) league fixtures – their best run since 2008 – but I still need convincing Villarreal can continue churning out regular results. Nine of their 14 domestic triumphs have come by a one-goal margin with Marcelinho counting on his side’s stubborn defence for success.

The Yellow Submarine actually rank bottom in the shots-per-game standings whilst only Getafe and Sporting Gijon have fired in fewer on-target attempts on their travels. And it’s not like Villarreal are dominating possession either – their average 48% figure means only five clubs have enjoyed a lesser share of the football.

Both clubs and head coaches share similar outlooks and the duo have been successful in implementing their approaches. So we shouldn’t expect either side to deviate away from their tried-and-trusted plans on Sunday night.

The two teams are likely to start with a tight and compact defensive strategy designed to limit the amount of goalscoring opportunities they give away. Between Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak and Villarreal stopper Alphonse Aréola they’ve kept 24 clean sheets in 48 games – a staggering 50%.

Atleti have netted just 35 goals and Villarreal only 30 – the latter notching the fewest goals in the top-half. In fact, put the two clubs’ goal tallies together and they’ve still scored fewer than the likes of Real Madrid or Barcelona.

And so with that in mind, venturing into the goals markets look the best option here.

Five of the last six head-to-heads have failed to break the Over 2.5 Goals mark with 32/48 (67%) of both clubs’ league fixtures featuring fewer than three goals this term. A further 19/48 (40%) have fallen below the two-goal line so backing Under 1.5 Goals at 13/8 looks worth a wee wager.

Recommended Bets
Under 1.5 Goals (13/8)

Roma v Palermo, Sunday 21 February 2016 (19.45), BT Sport Europe
Roma are almost certainly heading for the Champions League exit after losing 2-0 to Real Madrid but it was a positive performance from Luciano Spalletti’s side that should encourage the Giallorossi to push on with their impressive recent Serie A form.

The capital club have plenty to play for in the league with Champions League qualification for next season still to be determined. And the Wolves should get the show back on the road by seeing off struggling Palermo in the capital.

Only Napoli have scored more league goals than Roma’s tally of 47 this season and with 10 plundered across a four-match domestic winning streak, the Giallorossi will be confident in front of goal. And with six of the last eight bottom-six visitors departing pointless, the hosts are just 3/10 shots to deliver.

However, there might be mileage in backing a Roma victory with Over 2.5 Goals at 20/21. The hosts have shutout just one of their last eight opponents in league football and surprisingly, under Spalletti they’ve been facing an average of 4.20 shots-on-target per-game – the same average under Rudi Garcia this season.

That should at least encourage Palermo to come and play. The Sicilians have re-appointed Giuseppe Iachini, their eighth managerial change in the past three months – you read that correctly – after returning just W3-D2-L5 in their past 10 fixtures.

The Rosanero have been crippled by inconsistency – arguably brought about by the madcap ownership of Maurizio Zamparini – and without a clean sheet against Roma in the Stadio Olimpico since 1973, look highly unlikely to end that record on Sunday evening.

Only Frosinone (524) have faced more total shots than Palermo (415) this season but the relegation scrapers have managed to strike in all bar four of their 12 road trips this term, including in four of their five visits to top-half clubs.

Six of Roma’s eight home league victories in 2015/16 have arrived with Over 2.5 Goals

and four of Palermo’s six away losses have also featured three or more goals so counting on a repeat makes perfect sense.

Recommended Bets
Roma to win and Over 2.5 Goals (20/21)

*Prices correct at time of publication.