Nights like these
Chelsea face Sparta Prague (or if you want to be specific, Sparta Praha) later on this week in the Europa League. The English club are expected to progress from the tie with relative ease if the bookmakers and some armchair enthusiasts are right in their predictions, but while Chelsea remain favourites with good reason, they do need to be cautious about a club that is aiming to make nights like these a regular occurrence once again.
Sparta are, as much as their cross-town rivals Slavia would like to think otherwise, the historical force of Czech football. They have won the league (Gambrinus Liga) on eleven occasions and lifted aloft the Czech Cup (Pohár České pošty) five times. In terms of European awareness and experience, the club also top that too and have been regular participants in the Champions League. Basically they are the most successful club in the country. Recently though, they haven’t been as dominant.
There are varying reasons to why Sparta haven’t had the same success in past seasons as they have enjoyed previously and as such they haven’t brought a trophy back to their Letná base since 2010 – an absolute lifetime for a club built around prolificacy in the national game. Four successive failed attempts at reaching the Group Stages of the Champions League – one can be ignored as they fell to Arsenal in 2007, but the back-to-back eliminations by Panathinaikos and then, embarrassingly, to Slovakian champions Žilina – highlighted that times were changing. Viktoria Plzeň and Slovan Liberec have won the league title the past two seasons and last year in the Champions League Plzeň made a name from themselves drawing compliments on their playing style while facing Barcelona, taking points off Milan and dragging Schalke into extra-time in the Europa League. Meanwhile while all that was going on, Sparta failed to make it into the Europa League proper as they lost on aggregate to Vaslui of Romania.
Plzeň’s successes showcased that in order to thrivem not only a healthy business model was needed, but so was good footballing philosophy. For a team still heavily indebted to the ‘old guard’ and the ‘old ways’, change was needed and a shift in focus towards the stars of tomorrow would have to be enforced.
The transition has not been easy. If they had stuck to their original train of thought they may well have won the league last year, but this ‘new’ Sparta is clearly wielding results and is undergoing quite the visual evolution. There have been bumps along the road but the signs are there to see; Sparta’s rebuilding process is certainly on the right track. When they click they can produce the kind of football only seen by those in the red and blue of Plzeň, or those watching Dukla’s Czech styled Tiki-taka.
Off the field the efforts of their well respected former director Lukáš Přibyl, who sadly died of sudden heart failure almost a year to this day, must be applauded as he sought to alter Sparta’s image publicly, but on the pitch after a few changes in manager, that task has been handed to Vítězslav Lavička. The transformation under the former Sydney FC coach this season can best displayed by his side’s performances in the Europa League; often clinical but still a little timid. They dismantled Feyenoord in qualification and then when they made the trip to Lyon, they looked almost in awe of the situation. Sparta however qualified second in their group behind Lyon and in the process dismantled Athletic Bilbao, the finalists of last year, in the Czech Republic.
The crux of the team is now not the battle-weary veterans chomping at the bit for the limelight for a final time, but talented and hungry youngsters who have the promise to play at the highest level. Tomáš Vaclík – Sparta’s first choice goalkeeper – has positioned himself as the likely successor to Petr Čech, Ladislav Krejčí has enjoyed a breakout twelve months and looks like he can only improve, Josef Hušbauer is one of best box-to-box midfielders in the league and everybody has heard of Václav Kadlec who, when he isn’t the subject of bad luck, has been enjoying a renaissance period at the ripe old age of twenty.
While Sparta are not expected to defeat Chelsea, there remains hope and optimism that they can spring a surprise given the London club’s erratic form of late under Rafael Benitez. If Brentford can hold the likes of Oscar, Torres and Lampard to a draw then Sparta certainly can cause an upset. But while everybody is enjoying this high profile tie and the return of Petr Čech, it primarily remains a tool to aid the progression of the side and, rather prominently, earn some money.
Nights like these may have been few and far between for Sparta in the past few years, but all the signs are there that they could become a regular occurrence once more. And if Plzeň continue as they are, then that will be absolutely fantastic for all of Czech football.
Featured picture: J1s (flickr)