B/R Experts' Big-Game Predictions, August 22-24
UEFA Champions League and Europa League places are within touching distance, and who qualifies for the group stages of European competition will be finalised this week.
Celtic put Astana to the sword in the first leg and will hope for a comfortable night in Kazakhstan, while Liverpool will look to finish the job they started in Hoffenheim last week.
Our experts have been casting their eyes over the form book in the hope of pointing you in the right direction.
FC Astana vs. Celtic
Sam Tighe says:
Celtic hold a 5-0 aggregate lead heading into this fixture, so the chances of Astana mounting a historic comeback are slim. Even the most steadfast of fans will accept this one's over.
The second-leg score depends entirely on what kind of team Brendan Rodgers takes to Kazakhstan. If it's a full complement of stars they'll probably win again, but why should the Bhoys do that? Rotating—even at this early stage—is important.
Expect a retort from the hosts against a weakened Celtic XI, but it won't be enough to grab victory on home soil.
Prediction: Astana 2-2 Celtic (2-7 agg)
First goalscorer: Junior Kabananga
Nice vs. Napoli
Adam Digby says:
After the first meeting between these two sides, a number of Napoli players—and coach Maurizio Sarri–lamented their inability to establish a bigger lead.
They believed that a two-goal cushion would not be enough to see off Nice, meaning that instead of protecting their lead, they will almost certainly head to France looking for goals.
Napoli play much better when that is the case, and they were able to beat Hellas Verona on Saturday while resting leading scorer Dries Mertens. He will be back in the lineup to spearhead Sarri's 4-3-3 formation, but their opponents should also be welcoming some star names back into their own starting XI.
Wesley Sneijder and Mario Balotelli both featured in their 2-0 win over Guingamp and should be fit enough to help Nice fight for a place in the Champions League group stage.
Prediction: Nice 2-2 Napoli (2-4 agg)
First goalscorer: Lorenzo Insigne
Sevilla vs. Istanbul Basaksehir
Karl Matchett says:
Two away goals and a 2-1 lead have Sevilla in control, but they'll have to play better in the second leg than they did in their opening La Liga fixture—a 1-1 draw at home against Espanyol—to see the job through.
There remain question marks over the attack, as they are missing a clinical edge, and new signing Ever Banega is a must-start in midfield—the team is nowhere near as fluid without him.
Istanbul Basaksehir haven't gotten their own season off to the greatest start either, and the Spanish side should—by experience as much as quality—have enough to see out the second 90 minutes without putting themselves in a compromising position.
Prediction: Sevilla 1-1 Istanbul Basaksehir (3-2 agg)
First goalscorer: Wissam Ben Yedder
Liverpool vs. Hoffenheim
Dean Jones says:
Liverpool will become a much more attractive proposition to prospective signings if they can book a place in the Champions League group stages.
They hold a 2-1 lead from the first leg, but if we have learnt anything from their hectic start to the season, it is that they really could do with a couple more signings.
They are certainly missing Philippe Coutinho, who was being prepared for a deeper creative role this season, and Jurgen Klopp cannot afford to rest players for this qualifier. He will surely have his side motivated to ensure there is no danger of a shock.
A late goal from Mark Uth means Hoffenheim still hold belief that a Champions League spot could open up for them, though.
Sadio Mane had to step up to clinch a win over Crystal Palace at the weekend and might have to take matters into his own hands again.
Prediction: Liverpool 1-0 Hoffenheim (3-1 agg)
First goalscorer: Sadio Mane
Athletic Club vs. Panathinaikos
Karl Matchett says:
A tremendous second half in the first leg has put Athletic Club right in control of this tie; two goals down after an hour, they rallied to win 3-2 in Greece and now only need to see out the return leg in San Mames without losing—which, considering they lost just twice at home in La Liga last season, should be well within their means.
Athletic are facing a year or two of regeneration, as they are bringing through another couple of youngsters with some older top names needing replacing along the way. Therefore a European campaign is of paramount importance: it gives the fans plenty to look forward to and offers valuable experience to younger talents.
They can't afford to slip up here, and they won't.
Prediction: Athletic Club 2-0 Panathinaikos (5-2 agg)
First goalscorer: Aritz Aduriz
Shkendija vs. AC Milan
Adam Digby says:
AC Milan have put this tie to bed, running out 6-0 winners in the first leg at San Siro. They followed that up with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Crotone on the opening weekend of Serie A, Vincenzo Montella's side proving that the coach has already instilled some cohesion into his rapidly assembled squad.
They will look to continue that momentum in Macedonia on Thursday, but with such a commanding lead the Rossoneri could look to rest a number of first-choice players.
Meanwhile, Shkendija boss Qatip Osmani will need to reflect on the naivety of sticking with his 4-2-3-1 formation against such a formidable opponent.
Prediction: Shkendija 1-3 AC Milan (9-1 agg)
First goalscorer: Patrick Cutrone
Hajduk Split vs. Everton
Dean Jones says:
Everton gave themselves a two-goal cushion from the first leg, and it should be enough to carry them into the competition proper.
The Toffees have beefed up their squad over the summer in preparation for a tough Premier League campaign and a good go at making an impression in the Europa League.
Gylfi Sigurdsson is now on board, giving Ronald Koeman another option when it comes to game-changers. One thing you can expect this season is that Everton will have goals spread throughout the squad, rather than a Romelu Lukaku-type focal point.
Everton may fear the Split fans more than the threat of the players, following the crowd trouble from the first leg. The game had to be held up while issues were sorted out.
The 2-0 lead—with goals from Michael Keane and Idrissa Gueye—has put the Toffees in a strong position. This is the kind of night Wayne Rooney—scorer of the Toffees goal against Manchester City in Monday night's 1-1 draw—was brought in for, so expect them to hold their nerve.
Prediction: Hajduk Split 0-1 Everton (0-3 agg)
First goalscorer: Wayne Rooney