Back when these Sparta Prague and Chelsea last met – a rather dull, tepid and unimaginative affair that can be summarised pertly as being full of ‘grit, determination and character’ – Champions League progression was the agenda. Ten years later it is the Europa League that is the setting, but make no mistakes that for Sparta especially, this is a big occasion.
The name of Sparta Prague should be a familiar one to those who have cast an eye out on continental football over the decades: Czech Republic’s most successful team have played in Europe regularly and have faced off against English opponents with some alarming regularity, playing Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and of course Chelsea, in UEFA competition over the past decade, though the balance of results firmly lie on the Premier League’s representatives, a statistic that coach Vítězslav Lavička will be hoping to address.
The Prague outfit come into this high profile tie as a result of finishing second to French club Olympique Lyonnais in the Europa League group stage. They opened their campaign in France and suffered a 2-1 defeat, but rebounded to dismantle Athletic Bilbao 4-0 in the Czech Republic before seeing off Israeli champions Ironi Kryat Shmona once again in Prague. Three draws followed, including a dull affair against Bilbao, but by then qualification was guaranteed. Domestically Sparta are unbeaten since late September when they fell to Slavia, though like their autumnal Europa League stint, they registered a few too many draws as winter approached. Meanwhile Chelsea enter the competition after finishing behind Juventus and Shaktar in the Champions League and come into the tie on the back of a consistently inconsistent run that has seen the West London club get knocked out of the League Cup, squander a handful of winning positions in the league and scrape a draw to third tier Brentford. Rather more ominously however, was their performance at the weekend when they put four past Wigan.
Comments made by the Czechs have been typically respectful, but bullish: Tomáš Vaclík and Ladislav Krejčí bordered on the clichéd when speaking to UEFA.com earlier on, but this is as much about the occasion for Sparta as the visit of huge European names has been somewhat of an infrequent event as of late.
Vítězslav Lavička has a number of selection problems to address for Thursday’s game. First choice centre-back Jiří Jarošík (once of Chelsea, Birmingham and Celtic), is likely to miss out with either midfielder Mario Holek dropping back or right-back Tomáš Zápotočný shifting inside to partner Ondřej Švejdík, the option Lavička preferred at the tail end of autumn. Though rumours suggest Romon Polon could get the nod, though it would be a huge show of faith in an otherwise untested player. Further up the field there is a question mark over who gets the nod to lead the line; Cameroonian international Leo Kweuke has been that man of choice – though Lavička has switched between one and two up top regularly and has also rotated his strikers, but all signs point towards a 4-5-1 being utilised here – but the winter arrival of David Lafata has thrown that into doubt. Lafata has been given the nod in Sparta’s winter friendly fixtures. Roman Bednář, once of West Brom, has also joined recently, further expanding and bolstering Sparta’s forward options.
Predicted XI: Vaclík – Vidlička, Zápotočný, Švejdík, Pamić – Hušbauer, Vácha, Matějovský – Kadlec, Krejčí – Lafata.
Who is who?
All of these names might be on the teamsheet for either tie; conversely a few might not even make it. But here is a quick run-down anyway.
Tomáš Vaclík, GK, #31 – Since moving to Sparta last season the twenty-three year old has quietly placed himself as the likely successor to Petr Čech in the national side. A good shot stopper he’ll need to be in scintillating form to keep Chelsea out you’d imagine. Prior to his switch to Sparta he played for Vítkovice and Viktoria Žižkov, where he begun to make a name for himself.
Marek Čech, GK, #1 – Not relation to Petr, Marek won the Gambrinus Liga with Liberec in 2006 before spending six seasons in Russia with Vladivostok, Lokomotiv Moscow and Sochi until he returned to the Czech Republic last year; a reliable deputy.
Vlastimil Vidlička, RB, #24 – A solid and consistent full-back who, while not outstanding, is certainly a reliable hand. He has found his starting birth under threat with the re-emergence of Zápotočný, but could benefit from Jarošík’s injury.
Tomáš Zápotočný, RB #20 – An infrequent starter since his move to Prague in 2010, the ex- Beşiktaş man seized his opportunity to impress Lavička with a thunderous strike against Athletic Club and hasn’t looked back since.
Ondřej Švejdík, CB, #4 – Seen sporting a samurai style haircut, Švejdík’s an uncompromising centre-back who marshals the defence and does the ugly stuff well. Goes under the radar, but he’s a good quality defender.
Manuel Pamić, LB, #3 – An industrious full-back who has appeared over one-hundred times for Sparta since joining in 2009. On the fringes of the Croat national side, though he is yet to make an appearance for them.
Jiří Jarošík, CB, #39 – A name familiar to Chelsea fans, Jarošík has been at the heart of Sparta’s defence since he re-joined in 2011 from Zaragoza. At thirty-five his legs might be going, but his experience and leadership has been integral.
Matěj Hybš, LB, #19 – Hybš has started just twice for Sparta, but rumours are circulating in the Czech press he has really impressed during winter training and could indeed feature at some stage which would be valuable experience for the youngster.
Lukáš Vácha, CM, #33 – A no-nonsense defensively minded midfielder who recently moved from Liberec. Vácha could well be the final piece to Sparta’s jigsaw though he’ll need to rein himself in a bit – three red cards so far this season – but he’ll add steel to Sparta’s midfield, something they were seriously lacking before.
Marek Matějovský, CM, #8 – The ex-Reading midfielder pulls the strings for Sparta and the accomplished passer has weighed in with a nice amount of assists so far this season. He’ll probably be remembered for that goal against Liverpool though.
Josef Hušbauer, CM, #22 – Signed from Baník Ostrava last year, the box-to-box midfielder has gone from strength to strength and is a regular amongst Sparta’s goal-scorers with nine in thirty-five league appearances. Made his debut for the national team last year against Ukraine.
Ladislav Krejčí, LW, #23 – The wiry winger almost dragged Sparta to the title last year with some virtuoso performances and since then, he has only improved. Seemingly first-choice for the national team now at just twenty, if he remains fit, the only way is up.
Mario Holek, CM, #25 – Sadly he’s become a bit of a spare part as he didn’t turn out to be the defensive midfielder everybody hoped when he joined from Dnipro on a free. Saying that, he’s a versatile and experienced hand, but like many others, it looks like he left the Czech Republic too early.
David Lafata, ST, #10 – Signed from Jablonec for around £600,000 (if reports are believed), and almost certainly because of the financial gains this tie has brought Sparta. Top scorer in the Czech Republic for the past few seasons it was perhaps his last big move; ridiculously prolific and Chelsea should worry if the ball falls to him in the box.
Léonard Kweuke, ST, #11 – The Cameroonian target man has often been the focal point of Sparta’s attack but that position has come under threat since Lafata has joined. A big, burly centre-forward who causes plenty of problems and options for those around him. Capped at international level and has played previously in Germany.
Václav Kadlec, ST, #14 – Hugely touted earlier in his career, the striker has often been pushed around to accommodate others, or, been on the receiving end of some terribly awful bad luck. Kadlec was back to his best earlier on this season playing just off Kwueke, but then he fractured his skull. The arrival of Lafata has seen him play on the right in preparatory games.
Roman Bednář, ST, #29 – Rather famously was suspended by West Brom for purchasing cocaine, but beyond that episode he was rather prolific in the Midlands before a series of injuries curtailed his career in England. Recently joined Sparta after earning a contract, likely substitute/rotation option domestically.
Bekim Balaj, ST, #9 – Sadly looks to be lost in the shuffle after a hugely promising start to his Sparta career, consistently finding the back of the net whilst being rotated with Kweuke and Kadlec.
(For more reading and a more in-depth look at some of Sparta’s youngster, then this, while a few months old, is still relevant)
The game in Prague will be sold out, with many turning up for what has colloquially become known as the ‘Petr Čech factor’. Inflated ticket prices haven’t put people off with hoards queuing up in the snow and generally freezing Prague winter to get a ticket when they were released. The atmosphere in Prague should, hopefully, be something. This Sparta side is young, hungry and determined. They might not be the finished product individually or collectively just yet, but the ties against Chelsea provide them with the chance to test themselves against some of the best players not just in England, but all of Europe, and for one Chelsea icon, it represents a chance to fulfil a dream and play at ‘home’ again.
*Squad numbers represent those used in the Europa League and not domestically.