Champions League: Vardar Skopje - Dinamo Zagreb
Sweltering in Skopje today and conditions will probably slightly favour the hosts, but that is probably the only advantage they might have and it will have cooled down significantly by kick off and if the forecast I saw is 100% correct, there might even be some cloud cover and a slight breeze during the game.
The Macedonian team have struggled in Europe and have not won a game since 2004, that is 16 fixtures (0-6-10), they have mainly been playing teams of a similar level to Dinamo and they are going to have to up the level of their performance to break their duck this evening.
Veteran coach Zlatko Kranjčar is back in charge of Dinamo for a third time and will clearly have a mandate to continue the visitors fine record in the competition and European football in general and to get another share of the huge riches that the Champions League offer for his club.
Over the last decade, Dinamo have qualified for the group stage of the UEFA Cup/Europa League four times, the Champions League three times since 2011-12 including last year, when they beat Arsenal in the group stage and picked up 13.5m €. You get "used" to that kind of money and the club accountants will be looking for more of the same. Of course, they do not need to win today, a point would not be terrible and they would be confident of turning things in their favour next week, but that would put them under a little pressure , everyone knows the value of an away goal and one might be enough to collect the win today. Vardar are a little short handed up top and Dinamo have an amazing UEFA Champions League qualifying road record, being 9-2-0 away from home in the last four years.
The Macedonian league doesn't begin again until next month, the Croatian league re-starts this weekend, so the visitors should be a few weeks further along in terms of fitness and I expect them to win this.
Dinamo Zagreb -0.5 ball 1.98 asian line/Sportmarket
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Champions League: Dundalk - BATE Borisov (0-1 first leg)
We have discussed BATE many times previously in Champions League qualification and they are probably the most experienced of all the non "elite" teams and have made the group stage of the competition five times since 2008-09, including the last two and in four of the last five seasons. They know how to work their way through these games and having won their domestic league for ten straight years and often easily, their whole season is usually planned and built around these games. They also have the advantage over most that, come early August, they are battle hardened and halfway through their league and at what should be peak fitness levels, they are currently heading for an 11th title and are 10 points clear after 13 rounds. This will not be a step into the unknown for them, last season they saw off Dundalk in Q2, winning 2-1 at home before drawing 0-0 in Ireland, now they arrive with another single goal lead, albeit this time with a clean sheet, to play in the Tallaght Stadium, the home of Shamrock Rovers, where this match will be held.
Dundalk are without the injured Brian Gartland and captain Stephen O’Donnell and midfielder Ronan Finn are doubtful and will face late tests. The hosts look on course for a third straight Premier Division title, but are novices at this level and were comprehensively outplayed in Borisov, despite holding out for 70 minutes. However, BATE barely do too much above the minimum and have drawn four of five qualification games after winning the home leg, they will be happy with 0-0 and if they score, will sit back for sure and that will give Dundalk a chance to equalise, maybe even edge to a win, as they would need three to progress, but a repeat of last year's 0-0 feels the most likely scoreline. Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny was in charge of Bohemians when they overturned a 1-0 first leg loss to beat BATE in 2003 and whilst that was a very long time ago and the Belarus giants are a completely different club nowadays, that will give him some belief and he will be trying to transmit that to his players, who are much improved in the last two years. Despite thir incredible achievements ,BATE have played 17 European away games without a win and although they have played a lot of big clubs in that sequence, there are more than a handful against minnows and as already outlined, they rarely do more than they need.
Dundalk +0.25 ball 2.44 asian line/Sportmarket or, +0.5 2.03 as an alternative
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