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The UEFA Europa League is already in full swing for many of Europe’s lesser lights, with the preliminary qualification rounds taking place over the next few weeks. Team’s from smaller countries such as Armenia, San Marino, Andorra, and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, have to play through four rounds just to get to the initial group stage. Arguably the biggest club involved at this stage is Premier League side West Ham, who qualified through the back door via the Premier League Fair Play Award.
Their first assignment was a two-legged match against semi-professional Andorran outfit, FC Lusitanos. The Hammers are three goals to the good after a home leg win at Upton Park, and take a scratch team out to the tiny country on the borders of Spain and France for the return leg. There are also a couple of other matches on the coupon involving two teams that play the second leg at home, after winning away. Slask Wroclaw of Poland face NK Celje of Slovenia with a 1-0 lead from the first leg; while Icelandic side Harfnarfjordur play host to SJK of Finland with the same one-goal advantage.
Lusitanos v West Ham 18:30
West ham are as short as -2000 for the second leg after taking a 3-0 win at home, but there is no value to be had in a bet like that. The odds on a high-scoring game are much more acceptable, and there could be plenty of goals on the cards if Lusitanos attempt to attack a little more than they did in the first leg.
There was an air of pre-season friendly about the first match at Upton Park, and the Hammers put out a mixture of youth and experience to take on their lowly opponents. There was a start for last season’s top scorer, Diafra Sakho, as well as other seasoned professionals, Matt Jarvis and Joey O’Brien, while young defender James Tomkins captained the side. Youth players Burke, Oxford, Page and Poyet were also on the teamsheet, with Oxford becoming the club’s youngest ever player in the process.
It was about as routine a win as you could expect, although Lusitanos did well to hold out until the 40th minute. Sakho pounced with two goals in five minutes though, to give West Ham a half-time cushion. They only added one more in the second half, but wasted plenty of opportunities to add to the scoring. Lusitanos played a very tactical game, looking to go down and waste time at every opportunity, and there was an element of damage limitation about their performance.
The game has some added spice after the Lusitanos coach, Xavi Roura, accused opposite number Slaven Bilic of lacking respect by not being in the dugout. It was an odd attack as West Ham had previously announced that Bilic would be at a training camp with the rest of his squad in Ireland, while Academy Director Terry Westley took charge of the side. It was not planned for Bilic to be at this second leg either, but he has had a change of mind and traveled to Andorra. One wonders if he was sufficiently riled by Roura’s comments to attend the game and send his team out to put the opposition to the sword.
The Hammers could easily have scored five or six last week, despite Lusitanos defensive play and time-wasting. The home side will have to try and play a bit more in the second leg, however unlikely it is that they can turn the tie around. That may offer West Ham’s attacking players a bit more space on the break and over 3.5 goals looks a very decent bet.
Over 3.5 goals – -175 with PaddyPower
Slask Wroclaw v NK Celje 19:00
One of the other ties to catch the eye is between Polish side Slask Wroclaw and Slovenian team NK Celje. The Poles took an early lead on the half hour mark in the first leg away from home, then shut up shop to see the game out. Although they don’t ‘need’ to win to get through here, they are very strong on home ground and won’t take any chances. NK Celje have no option but to try and score the away goal that will level the tie, but the more they push forward the more they can be punished on the break. If the tie were level at this stage, Slask would be much, much shorter at the odds, and they are worth following to win the match and make certain of qualification.
The Polish side hasn’t lost at home since March, and is on a run of four straight victories home and away. Celje have a decent away record domestically, but this is a much tougher challenge and they’re not in great recent form, having lost three of the last five games.
Harfnarfjordur v SJK 20:15
Another punt at odds slightly better than evens is the Icelandic side Harfnarfjordur. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but they certainly don’t mince their words at home and have won 16 of the last 20 games in front of their own fans. They also hold a 1-0 lead from the first leg, so again they don’t ‘need’ to win, but they can still be backed to make sure tonight.
SJK have lost four of their last six games, including the 1-0 home leg reverse, and this is a tough away trip for them. Icelandic football is having a bit of a purple patch at the moment, with the national team doing well in Euro 2016 qualifiers, and Harfnarfjordur are one of the best club sides in the country.
Harfnarfjordur – +110 with William Hill
UEFA Europa League Qualifiers, Thursday 9th July
Lusitanos v West Ham Over 3.5 goals – -175 with PaddyPower
Harfnarfjordur – +110 with William Hill
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