Champions League Betting: Guardiola already makes his mark

Ruthless Pep Guardiola wields the axe at Man City
Ruthless Pep Guardiola wields the axe at Man City
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The Road to Cardiff begins in earnest as the Champions League play-offs get underway. BT Sport's James Horncastle takes us through the ties...

"It's reminiscent of the time Guardiola got the first team job at Barcelona and let Ronaldinho and Deco both know that they no longer had a future at the Camp Nou. Adios amigos."

The season has barely started and already the 'super managers' are making big calls in the Premier League.

Jose Mourinho sent Bastian Schweinsteiger to play for the reserves and then substituted his substitute Juan Mata during the Charity Shield. Arsène Wenger decided against rushing back Laurent Koscielny for Arsenal's opener against Liverpool despite the injury crisis afflicting his defence. Antonio Conte left Cesc Fabregas out of his first starting line up and withdrew Eden Hazard, the Man of the Match, at a time when Chelsea needed a goal.

Steaua Bucharest v Man City

Pep Guardiola has gone further. In fact, the Champions League presented him with his first opportunity to make an impact. Eliaquim Mangala, Samir Nasri and Wilfried Bony were all excluded from Manchester City's squad for the competition. Yaya Toure has been left out of their matchday squad to face Steaua Bucharest on Wednesday night. He didn't play against Sunderland at the weekend. Nor did Joe Hart.

It's reminiscent of the time Guardiola got the first team job at Barcelona and let Ronaldinho and Deco both know that they no longer had a future at the Camp Nou. Adios amigos. The City Five didn't have to wait for the winter to feel the cold. Pep might soon get the nickname the Night King.

Meanwhile, over in Ireland the story of Dundalk is much more heartwarming. Almost 40 years since Celtic knocked them out of the European Cup, they are on the brink of becoming the first Irish team ever to make the Champions League group stages.

The country's president Michael D. Higgins will be in attendance at the Aviva Stadium to get behind the likes of Dane Massey, an electrician by trade and top scorer David McMillan, an architect. Ireland manager Martin O'Neill has sent the team his best wishes. Dundalk's Stephen Kenny might one day replace him.

Beating Legia Warsaw in the play-offs would be a historic moment for Irish football and a transformative one for Dundalk too. The TV revenue and prize money dwarfs what they earn in the League of Ireland. It would be a marvellous achievement.

Villarreal v Monaco

To tell the truth Wednesday night has it all in the Champions League. While Dundalk provide the romance, there are a couple of ties glamorous enough to fool you into thinking the group stages have already started. Villarreal-Monaco is one.

Tensions that had long been submerged came to the surface with the Yellow Submarine last week. Marcelino got the sack. He apparently fell out with centre-back Mateo Musacchio and had strong differences of opinion with the board on transfer strategy. Injuries to strikers Roberto Soldado and Cédric Bakambu leaves Villarreal short in attack. However, they have since drafted in Alexandre Pato.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Marcelino grew so frustrated was the exit of Antonio Cordon, Villarreal's longstanding and highly respected director of sport. As fate would have it, he is now head of recruitment at Monaco. The Monegasques have injury concerns of their own. Right-back Djibril Sidibé is a doubt. Joao Moutinho only played 10 minutes against Guingamp on Friday and predictably Radamel Falcao, who, to his credit, scored in both legs in the last round against Fenerbahçe, is hurt.

Even so, Villarreal's casualty list is still the longer of the two. New signing Nicola Sansone is ineligible after playing for Sassuolo in the Europa League play-offs, Victor Ruiz is suspended and Musacchio, his centre-back partner, has had his head turned by AC Milan for much of the summer.

Porto v Roma

The other tie causing excitement is Porto-Roma. The Italians are understandably wary of the play-offs. Only one representative from Serie A has come through it in the last six years. Arriving just before the season starts for them, they come into it cold and are frequently caught in the middle between deciding whether to take the risk and reinforce the team before the play-off or erring on the side of caution and only doing so afterwards once the Champions League money is guaranteed.

Porto already have a competitive game under their belts. Liga Nos got underway on Friday and traditionally the Dragão is a very difficult place to go. Bayern, Chelsea, Manchester United and Atletico have all lost there in recent memory.

However, Roma's pre-season has been encouraging. They came back early. Losing Miralem Pjanic to Juventus was a blow but they have kept Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman is fit and healthy again and Edin Dzeko has been banging in the goals over the summer. Critically more cover has been added in defence. Six pre-season friendlies, all of which ended in victory, should have Roma up to speed. Can they buck the trend? I'm backing them to qualify @ 4/5 on the Sportsbook.

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