Make Chelsea your Czech mates

  • By: Andy Schooler
  • Last Updated: February 14 2013, 18:35 GMT

The Europa League returns on Thursday and hopefully we can start looking forward to teams taking it more seriously.

Rafael Benitez: Shrewd tactician when it comes to European football
Rafael Benitez: Shrewd tactician when it comes to European football

The competition often appears to be an inconvenience to teams in its early stages. With line-ups difficult to predict it can be something of a minefield for punters.

Certain sides look sure to have focus on the competition now.

Liverpool, for example, have little else to play for. Out of the FA Cup and with hopes of a top-four finish in the Premier League now all but over following Monday's home defeat to West Brom, this competition could prove to be their salvation after another season of disappointment.

They face a tricky tie against former winners Zenit St Petersburg though, starting with a trip to Russia.

Zenit have not lost at home in their last 19 European ties and the likes of Hulk and Russian international Aleksandr Kerzhakov, a real predator for his club but so profligate during last summer's European Championships, should ensure Liverpool's defence is tested.

The Reds look set to play a strong side but it will not feature Daniel Sturridge or recent signing Philippe Coutinho.

Brendan Rodgers will certainly look for a reaction after Monday's defeat but it should be remembered Liverpool did not play that badly and would almost certainly have won had Steven Gerrard netted from the spot at 0-0.

With Zenit having not played competitively for two months, this could be a good time to be playing them, but a home record as strong as theirs is somewhat off-putting if you are considering backing what is a 12/5 shot (a Liverpool win).

Chelsea are a much smaller price but still look a decent bet for their clash away to Sparta Prague.

Rafael Benitez made his name with his record in European football and he has been a master of gaining something on the road before finishing the job in the home leg.

Tactically he was often spot on in such two-legged European ties during his days with Liverpool, a spell which followed on from similar success at Valencia.

While Chelsea have not found scoring a problem during a recent bumpy run - they now have 48 in their last 17 games - I'm not going to be tempted in to some tasty prices in the goalscorer markets.

Frank Lampard (eight goals in 12 games) is flying at present and can be backed at 2/1, while Branislav Ivanovic, with six goals this season, could offer some value at 8/1.

But with Bentiez's history and Sparta's decent defensive record in mind, I'm simply going to stick with an away win, which can be backed at 8/11.

Sparta went into their winter break by winning just six of their last 18 games and some recent friendlies against limited opposition hardly suggest they are a changed outfit.

Chelsea may be missing Demba Ba, but Fernando Torres has found the net 15 times this season despite his critics, while Lampard and Juan Mata are in a rich vein of form.

At the other end, John Terry and Gary Cahill are both available so this looks like a match where class really should tell.

The other two English sides in action are Newcastle, who host Metalist Kharkiv, and Tottenham, who entertain Lyon.

Spurs could be vulnerable in their tie against a side currently second in the French league.

They are one side you have to wonder will want a long run in this competition. They are on course for fourth place in the Premier League and that will surely rate higher on the club's priority list.

Andre Villas-Boas has already hinted that's the case with Hugo Lloris left out against his former club and we've already seen what can happen when Spurs take things a tad lightly - see their away defeat at Leeds in the FA Cup.

You can get the French and the draw onside at evens; the problem is Lyon are currently in arguably their worst run of the season.

They've just lost back-to-back matches in Ligue 1, results which have seriously damaged their title bid, and I just can't bring myself to side with them, certainly not without seeing the team line-ups.

  • The Liverpool and Tottenham matches are being televised live in the UK on ITV, while the Chelsea and Newcastle games will be on ESPN.

  • Preview posted at 1740 GMT on 13/02/2013.