Let’s be honest, this is a great draw for Villarreal. Sparta Prague are the weakest side left in the Europa League and if all things go to plan, then El Submarino Amarillo should be sauntering into the semi-finals.
However, this is also a great draw for Sparta Prague. Sure, they are the weakest side left in the competition at this stage, but they did give Lazio and Krasnodar a hiding and they’ll be quietly confident that they can make it a three 3-0 away wins on the bounce in Europe when they travel to El Madrigal.
Season So Far
With twelve Czech (and twenty-one Czechoslovak) championships to their name, Sparta have historically monotonously motored through mediocre opposition on their way to a silver-laden season. And, generally, that is what they have done this season. They have been ruthlessly clinical in front of goal and near-enough unbreachable at the back. However, they picked up a serious case of the yips last autumn.
Despite having the best attack and defence in the Synot Liga, Sparta sit second in the table six points behind league leaders Viktoria Plzen. To make matters worse, they also lost to their biggest rivals Slavia Prague in the ‘S’ derby and collapsed against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League qualifiers. At any other point in their recent history, this would result in people rioting on the streets of Prague.
Yet Sparta’s coach, Zdenek Scasny, has ridden the tidal wave of criticism that came his way pre-Christmas. Out of the wreckage of what was shaping up to be an average campaign, he has helped create something truly memorable.
Progression from a Europa League group that contained Schalke, APOEL and Asteras helped – as did a recent dose of derby day revenge – but in guiding Sparta past Krasnodar and Lazio, he has done something nobody has done in a generation: Lead a Czech club into the latter stages of European competition.
The last time somebody did that – Frantisek Cipro and Slavia Prague- twenty years ago, - football was not the cash rich vehicle that it is today. Back then, clubs from smaller countries actually had a chance.
The primary reason why Sparta started to bottle big games was Scasny himself.
An advocate of the three-man defence, the former Teplice manager spent the majority of the summer attempting to convert full-backs into centre-backs and wingers into forwards. Come the start of the season, whenever Sparta played 3-5-2 the only thing that was guaranteed was a bewilderingly shambolic performance.
But Scasny has evidently kept working on it. Come their Europa League game in Krasnodar, the three-man defence was brought back to wonderful effect. New signing Ondrej Zahustel – a right-back in the first-leg – rampaged down the flank and Borek Dockal excelled in a free role behind the strikers. And once the crescendo had reached its peak; the players seamlessly switched to their usual take on a 4-5-1 (it is somewhere between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 in reality). The Russian side did not have a clue how to react.
The second leg against Lazio in the last round followed a similar story.
When lined up in the 4-5-1, expect Sparta to be patient and somewhat conventional both on and off the ball.
In the 3-4-1-2 though, expect a flurry of movement. Dockal tends to drift a lot, partly to look for space and partly to overload one side of the pitch. Krejci, a winger by trade, will look to do something similar on the other flank albeit from a more advanced position.
Three to Watch
Martin Frydek – He might not be the best player at Sparta, but he is easily the most important as the twenty-four year can play (comfortably) in the following positions:
Full of running, fond of picking up a yellow card, and rarely reckless with the ball, he is the one that makes the switch between systems possible.
Jakub Brabec – There are two Jakub Brabecs. There is the one that makes defending look easy and can comfortably stride out of defence with the ball and pick an attack-launching pass through the heart of the opponents and then there is the one that looks like a mistake waiting to happen. Luckily, for Sparta, we have seen the former this season and Brabec has started to work his way into the Czech national side.
Lukas Julis – Competing with David Lafata and Kehinde Fatai, opportunities for the twenty-one year-old have been limited. That said, whenever he has been given the chance he has tended to write his own headlines. Julis has started three times in the Europa League this season and scored on each occasion. He might not be the present, but it looks like he certainly will be the future.
Zdenek Scasny – Brought in on a temporary basis to steady the ship after Vitezslav Lavicka’s reign ended, Scasny ended up with the job on a permanent basis when the club failed in their attempts to lure some high profile names to Prague.
His CV is a mixture of success and mediocrity. He guided Sparta to back-to-back titles in the late 1990s, turned Viktoria Zizkov into a side capable of challenging for trophies, and led Panathinaikos on a memorable Champions League journey. Yet he also failed to breathe life into a solid Mlada Boleslav side, and was sacked by Debrecen after winning just four of fourteen games.
Rightfully maligned in some quarters, but there’s no denying that when he has things right he has them spectacularly right.
As a player, he represented Sparta Prague the last time they reached the final eight of the UEFA Cup/Europa League back in 1984.
(4-5-1) Bicik; Zahustel, Brabec, Holek, Costa; Dockal, Marecek, Vacha, Frydek, Krejci; Lafata
(3-4-1-2) Bicik; Brabec, Holek, Costa; Zahustel, Marecek, Vacha, Frydek; Dockal; Lafata, Krejci