This Thursday Ron Jans leads PEC Zwolle into their first ever game in European Football as current Synot Liga champions Sparta Prague make the short trip to the Netherlands in the first leg of the Europa League playoffs. Czech football expert Chris Boothroyd gives Total Dutch Football the full rundown on what PEC Zwolle can expect…
If there is a time to play Sparta Prague, then that time is now. Despite an easy canter to the Czech league title last season, this year has thrown up its fair share of panic and problems in just a few short weeks as old curses have reappeared. The Champions League exit at the hands of Malmo has been doubt spread through the squad like wildfire and a defeat to Banik Ostrava in the league on Friday has only succeeded in fuelling the flames.
Sparta have been forced to watch on enviously whilst Viktoria Plzen represented the country in the Champions League, and gave good accounts of themselves against the likes of Manchester City, Bayern Munich and AC Milan, earning plaudits and recognition from their gutsy, never-say-die approach to free-flowing football. But last season the tide turned and Viteslav’s Lavicka’s approach of modernising Sparta duly paid off. Champions League qualification was the objective this year and they have already come up short after a catastrophically bad performance in Sweden, a country in which they’ve never won or scored.
As is always the case with the top clubs from mid-level leagues, the best players tend to get bought by the bigger and richer clubs from around Europe. Last year Sparta’s marquee name to leave was, finally, Vaclav Kadlec and this year has already seen Tomas Vaclik leave Prague for Basel. But Sparta appears to be set to be losing their most important player of the last eighteen months, Josef Husbauer. Rumours of his departure have been persistent – Newcastle were linked at one point – and it is expected that he will seal a move to Cagliari in the near future, but the form that saw the dynamic midfielder procure the Czech golden boot last year has mysteriously vanished. But if at his best, there aren’t too many people capable of getting up and down the pitch, setting up chances and, importantly, converting them.
Defensively too there are question marks. The Zimbabwean international Costa Nhamoinesu was imperious last season, but looks a different player this time around and Mario Holek – converted into a ball-playing centre-back by Lavicka – has been absent through injury and understudies Radoslav Kovac and Jakub Brabec have been unconvincing. The steeliness has worn away somewhat.
But despite an early season dip in form, there are a number of players who are capable of the sublime.
Borek Dockal broke records last season from out wide and has as good a right foot as you are likely to see, Ladislav Krejci is the home-grown old-school winger a big performance or two away from a big-money transfer and David Lafata has been banging them in for fun for years now, but it only getting the recognition he deserves – that’s what five goals on your Champions League debut will do for you.
Sparta, should, be seeing off Zwolle, with the front three of Dockal, Lafata and Krejci – with Husbauer advancing from deep – on song, but their recent blip throws that proverbial cat amongst the pigeons.
One area where the Dutch side should target is the centre of midfield. Lukas Vacha, suspended for the tie after his last-minute dismissal in Sweden, will be a huge loss. Versed in the dark arts of disrupting play and not afraid to get stuck in, the defensive midfield may primarily be a destroyer, but the former Slovan Liberec man is very comfortable on the ball and provides a calming presence whilst those around him bomb forward. Without an obvious replacement, Sparta could be overrun.
Predicted XI: Bicik – Kaderabek, Kovac, Svejdik, Costa – Matejovsky, Marecek, Husbauer – Dockal, Lafata, Krejci
Click on Chris’s name above to follow him on Twitter or visit the excellent CZEFootball.com website.