Southampton v Hapoel Beer Sheva
Premier League side Southampton and Israeli Premier League outfit Hapoel Beer Sheva square off in a playoff for a knockout place in the Europa League on Thursday. Group K leaders Sparta Prague have already sealed their place in the next round, but runners-up Southampton and third-placed Hapoel are level on points with each other ahead of this week’s encounter at St Mary’s, and the winner on Thursday goes through to the last-32. A win or a goalless draw would see the Saints into the next round, but defeat or a score draw will instead see the Israeli club finish second. Southampton are second in Group K with seven points from five games, having won two, drawn one and lost two. Claude Puel’s men have a 100% home record in the Europa League this season but have picked up just one point from a possible nine on the road. Fortunately for the Saints, Thursday’s must-win encounter is at St Mary’s and their opponents are coming off the back of a defeat in their last away game in Europe. Southampton haven’t been the most convincing in any competition this season, but their home form has always bailed them out. Ahead of this week’s Europa League group game, Southampton have suffered three defeats and one draw from their last five in all competitions, scoring just two goals, but are sure to perform with so much at stake against Hapoel. Their last three home games have seen a complete contrast in results, beating Inter Milan and Everton, while drawing with Liverpool, so they will fancy their chances of getting a result. Saints and Hapoel played out a goalless stalemate in the reverse fixture back in September, but their upcoming clash is likely to be different. In their domestic league, Hapoel are runaway leaders this season, having dropped just five points in 12 games. However, the Europa League has seen them fall short to Sparta and Southampton, beating only Inter in the group – home and away. The Israeli club have failed to score in three of their last four European outings ahead of Thursday’s make-or-break game but will have a game plan to try and extract victory against a Saints side who have been hit and miss in 2016/17. With Southampton performing below par in the Premier League, progression in Europe would be a welcome distraction and something to keep the supporters happy. A deep run in the Europa League would also boost the club’s reputation when looking to attract bigger names in the transfer market so it’s certainly in Southampton’s best interests to make the continental competition a priority. The South Coast club will feel they should have sealed their place in the knockouts without needing a final group game to settle the top-two spots, having impressed in their defeat against a struggling Inter back in October. Southampton got their revenge at home to the Italian side and have a resilient defensive record to give Hapoel something to worry about. The hosts have conceded just 0.6 goals per game in the Europa League group stages, while the visitors average only 1 goal per game. Saints could edge this one.