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Monday, 21 January, 2019

Ajax could pip Benfica to Group E qualification

Hoffenheim could bomb in Group F

First-leg goalscorers Lasse Schone (left) and Hakim Ziyech (right) of Ajax
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Group E
It is difficult to argue against Bayern Munich winning Group E in easy fashion but bookmakers may have it wrong by being so sweet on Benfica to follow the German giants through to the last 16.

Ajax have not reached the last 16 since 2006, falling at the group-stage hurdle on their last five attempts, but the Amsterdam outfit have taken a hefty financial plunge to try to improve on that record as well as jump above PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie.

The biggest clue that it was money well spent came in the last qualifying round as Ajax beat Dynamo Kiev 3-1 at home before sealing the deal with a goalless draw in Ukraine. That goal conceded against Kiev is the only one they have shipped in their last seven matches.

Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic, two expensive summer arrivals, have made a major difference in both boxes and added experience to a side sprinkled with the potential of Dutch duo Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt plus Brazilian winger David Neres.

It was a surprise to see Hakim Ziyech give Ajax another year and they can topple a Benfica side who finished pointless in last season's Champions League.

AEK Athens should be outclassed with Bayern finishing on top.

Bayern Munich-Ajax straight forecast
2pts 9-4 Sky Bet

Group F
Hoffenheim are the weakest team in Group F, a point which seems to have escaped the notice of bookmakers.

There was no disgrace in the Germans losing to Liverpool in last season's Champions League playoffs - the Reds went on to be runners-up - but their debut European campaign got worse in the Europa League as Julian Nagelsmann's team finished bottom of a section which also included Braga, Ludogorets and Istanbul Basaksehir.

Top goalscorer Mark Uth has since left for Schalke and they are a small club still trying to work out a balance between the Bundesliga, where they finished third, and European competition.

Hoffenheim were one of the strongest clubs in pot four, yet they have been unfortunate in the draw as Manchester City should take top spot and Lyon and Shakhtar are likely to compete for second.

Shakhtar reached the last 16 of the Champions League last season and showed their ability with victories over City, Napoli and Roma. Fred, Bernard and leading scorer Fernando Ferreyra have departed but they are accustomed to bringing in fresh South American talent.

Lyon are a naive team who should be doing better given their firepower which includes World Cup winner Nabil Fekir and the inconsistent Memphis Depay, although their squad is superior to Hoffenheim's in all departments.   

Hoffenheim to finish bottom 
2pts 9-4 Sky Bet

Group G
Real Madrid let down acca backers in last season's Champions League groups as they finished second to Tottenham, but the holders should make amends to beat Roma to top spot.

The Bernabeu is a fortress for Real, who have won 34 of their last 42 home matches in Europe, and will be aiming for a clean sweep in this section despite selling Cristiano Ronaldo.

Gareth Bale, Isco and Karim Benzema have started the campaign in decent nick and will be expected to fill their boots against a Roma side who tend to crumble on the road.

They lost away to Atletico, Shakhtar, Barcelona and Liverpool in last season's run to the semi-finals and have started Serie A poorly following the sales of key men over the summer.

Roma are still fancied to take the second qualifying berth behind Real with CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen set to be outclassed.

Those looking for a second bet may like to consider CSKA Moscow to finish bottom, as they have done in five of their last six Champions League attempts.

The teams faced each other in the 2012-13 Champions League - both sides won their respective home matches - and CSKA are weaker since a stack of retirements.

Real Madrid-Roma straight forecast
1pt 8-11 Hills, Sky Bet

Group H
Jose Mourinho will be hoping Champions League qualification is as simple as the odds predict but he will be aware that Manchester United face a tricky test negotiating a way past at least one of Juventus and Valencia.

United have improved their Premier League form recently, beating Burnley and Watford, but they have already conceded three goals in each of their defeats to Tottenham and Brighton.

Most of the post-draw talk surrounded the returns of Paul Pogba and Cristiano Ronaldo to face their former clubs and the Juve versus United matches should be titanic tussles with bookmakers suggesting those two outfits will progress to the last 16.

However, it would be wrong to dismiss Valencia, who finished above Sevilla in La Liga last season. That's the same Sevilla who knocked United out of the Champions League at Old Trafford.

Valencia did much of their transfer business late, which may explain their sluggish start to La Liga - a 1-1 draw with Atletico still reads well - and once last season's loan star Goncalo Guedes gets back up to full speed Los Che will be qualification contenders.

Juve appear a stronger side than last season thanks to the arrivals of Leonardo Bonucci and Ronaldo, which makes United's chances look precarious. Young Boys are booked for last place.

Juventus-Valencia dual forecast
1pt 9-4 Sky Bet

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The Bernabeu is a fortress for Real, who have won 34 of their last 42 home matches in Europe
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