Europa League Preview
Europa League Thursday
When the draw for the knockout stages were made, it's fair to say that Manchester United and Manchester City were disappointed to hear their names called out, never mind being paired with two clubs of great European stature.
United, the 2011 Champions League runners-up, were expected to regroup after that dismal defeat at Wembley to the brilliant Barcelona but instead they were ousted from Europe's premier club competition at the very first hurdle. Since that acrimonious exit after in Basel, United have actually improved greatly. Victories against both Liverpool and Arsenal as well as a morale boosting comeback away at Chelsea have seen the Red Devils cut Manchester City's lead at the top of the Premier League.
United's first non-Champions League European tie in fifteen years sees them pitted against another historical heavyweight in Ajax of Amsterdam. The reigning Dutch champions may not possess the quality of previous generations but the class of 2012 can call on excellent youngsters from the club's academy and from abroad.
The match betting for this enticing encounter sees the visitors installed as 5/6 favourites compared to the 5/2 offered for their Dutch hosts. Regardless of the opposition, winning away in Europe is a tough task and United's record on the continent this season is far from impressive. A draw then could be the most likely result at a price of 13/5.
Manchester City's first foray into the Champions League ended with a premature exit in the group stages. Roberto Mancini's men were highly fancied to take Europe by storm but have ended up back in the Europa League, a competition they failed to win last year, going out to Dynamo Kiev in the last 32.
One year on the Citizens face one of the toughest prospects in the entire competition. Porto, two time European Cup winners and reigning Europa League champions are a force to be reckoned with at the Estadio do Dragao and bigger and better teams than City have come unstuck there. The bookmakers cannot split the two teams ahead of this first leg with both City and Porto priced at 17/10 while the draw is a slightly bigger 21/10.
The William Hill Match Winner offer for Thursday's Europa League ties focuses on both Manchester teams. Enhanced from 2/1, we are offering 3/1 that United and City will score five or more goals between them in their respective away matches.
One team that were absolutely delighted to be still in the draw for the knockout stages were Tony Pulis's Stoke City. The unfashionable Potters bulldozed their way through the group stages and their reward was a tie against Spanish giants Valencia.
The first leg is at the Britannia and a fierce welcome is expected for the visitors from a partisan crowd that will be cheering on their heroes from well before the first whistle. Stoke can be backed at 9/5 in 90 minutes while Valencia, third in La Liga, are available at 13/8.
Stoke have improved massively over the last few years and I don't expect this match to be a walkover at all.