The double header in the middle of the group stage of a European competition is always a pivotal moment.
A chance to dominate an opponent and send them into a tailspin while you gather momentum for a final push to qualification, or the rocks on which your journey might come to a premature end according to how well you’ve marshaled your resources and positioned yourself, there’s no doubt the middle pair of games can prove crucial.
That’s certainly true of Real Betis’ matches with Vitoria de Guimaraes. The thing is, working out how they’ll turn out is a much less simple trick to pull off.
The trouble with Real, of course, is that you just don’t know which Betis is going to turn up. Literally. Pepe Mel is facing up to the classic dilemma of the manager whose team unexpectedly gets into Europe: how do you balance domestic and continental responsibilities?
His response has been the logical one of heavily rotating his squad, but the problem is that they’ve lost their identity and are an erratic shadow of the side which charmed us all (Sevillistas apart) last season.
This is a big game for the ambitions of Eurobetis. As the group stage hits the halfway stage, Betis find themselves looking at a winnable home game which they’ll feel could set them up nicely for the second half of the campaign.
However, there’ll be just one more match at the Benito Villamarin after this game, so they need to start cashing in on home advantage. If they can manage two home wins from those matches then they’ll be guaranteed a decent points haul irrespective of their two remaining away games and will be well-placed to progress. However, after opening their campaign with two draws their prospects remain up in the air. The next two games will go a long way to establishing, with the benefit of hindsight, whether they’ve got off to a solid start or are struggling to accumulate points.
Vitoria haven’t won in seven European away games, but stats can be deceptive. Their European campaign is the opposite of Betis’: while the Spanish side’s inability to kick on from last season is frustrating, Vitoria have embraced mid-table mediocrity in Portugal (they qualified as cup winners, remember) and have found that Europe suits them. Top of the group after following up their record continental win – 4-0 over Rijeka – with an impressive draw at Lyons, they’ll see this double header as a chance for them to create breathing space between them and the two big names that are up against them.
Historically speaking, something has to give. Betis have played Portuguese sides just twice, losing both times to Benfica, but Vitoria have lost on the last six occasions they’ve played Spanish clubs.
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