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A closer look at Sparta Praha, Napoli's Europa League opponents

Ian Walton

The majority of words in this preview come from Chris Boothroyd. He runs the site CZEFootball, providing news and analysis of Czech football and players in English. He can also be found on Twitter at CZEFootball.

On Thursday, Napoli face Sparta Praha / Sparta Prague, depending on which language you choose to use. Most of us aren't experts in Czech football, so it seemed an indepth look at the side would be helpful. Now, let's hope Rafa Benítez has the same sort of information available.

Like Napoli, Sparta started off in the Champions League, entering in the second qualifying round by virtue of their finishing first in the Synot liga. They fell at the second hurdle, however, drawing 4-4 on aggregate with Malmö FF, the Swedish side going through on away goals. Sparta then entered Europa League in the playoff round, where they defeated Dutch side PEC Zwolle -- but they've still got a point to prove. Currently second in the league, Sparta are anxious to progress in Europa, particularly at the expense of old rivals Slovan Bratislava.

Style

Under Pavel Vrba, Viktoria Plzen ushered in ‘modernity' to Czech football. Plzen played a high tempo passing game that, domestically, was focused on possession. In Europe they were a little more conservative, but still looked to push forward when they could. Napoli fans need not be reminded about the 5-0 aggregate hiding they received.

After a few years of assembling a squad to counter Vrba's trademark philosophy, Sparta coach Vítězslav Lavička finally achieved it last season by adopting a more direct game, centred on quick transitional bursts from defence or midfield to attack, mixed with plenty of forward players pressing high up the pitch. They'll adopt a similar strategy even when up against stronger opposition.

Expect David Lafata to harry the centre-backs with Borek Dockal and Ladislav Krejci sticking high up the pitch before quickly dropping back to form a midfield five if needed. If you watched Czech Republic vs. Netherlands, you'd have seen something similar.

Going forward, the goal is to get from A to B quickly, even if that means a period of passing the ball around. (I know that's contradictory, hopefully you get what I mean). Krejci and Dockal will stretch play out wide with support from Pavel Kaderabek and Costa Nhamoinesu, while Lafata will either pull defenders out of position for the midfield runner (last season it was Josef Husbuaer who ended up the league's top scorer) or look to be on the end of the move inside the six yard box.

Sparta have had problems playing against teams who sit back. They also have a bit of a superiority complex that comes back to haunt them when they meet sides who play to it (a couple of pundits have called the players out for being arrogant already, berating them for assuming they had Champions League qualification wrapped up)

Likely Team

Bicik - Kaderabek, Kovac, Brabec, Costa - Matejovsky, Marecek, Vacek* - Dockal, Lafata, Krejci (4-3-3 or 4-5-1, in truth it's somewhere between like a 4-3-2-1 but very flexible)

*NB - Josef Husbauer is what you consider the first choice in midfield, but his form has been pretty terrible this season, probably because of the long-rumoured move to Cagliari and entrance into parenthood. He might be favored, but Vacek has been playing pretty well recently.

Lukas Vacha, who'd be a terror against Napoli, is suspended. He's a little terrier of a midfielder who likes a scrap, does all the dirty work but can also build attacking movements up from just in front of the back four.

Players to watch

Ladislav Krejci: Youthful, gangly and unassuming, Ladislav Krejci is in many ways as far away from a footballer as you can get. But when you watch him play it's clear he was born into the wrong generation. In an era when wingers are expected to be able to do everything; to create and to cut inside and run straight at goal, Krejci is the exact opposite. Given the chance, he'll stick to the touchline and look to beat defenders with his crosses rather than through trickery. Dinamo Kiev, Borussia Monchengladbach and Newcastle have all had a look recently.

David Lafata: It's hard not to include a record breaker as a ‘player to watch'. On his Champions League debut he hit Levadia Tallinn for five. Against Malmö in the next round he grabbed a hat-trick. A brilliant predatory striker, he has mysteriously never been able to carry his goal-scoring record abroad. He's the all-time Synot Liga top scorer (141 goals in 319 games) but never replicated that when with Xanthi or Austria Vienna, or indeed the national team. A lesser Ruud van Nistelrooy, if you like. Also likes hunting.

Jakub Brabec: This time last year it looked like Brabec had finally arrived and would become as ingrained to Sparta's starting line-up as his best friend Krejci (they have a bit of a bromance going on) but he was ousted from the first-team by Christmas. He's got another chance now due to injuries and poor form and he's seized it - again.He's got everything needed to be a really good centre back for a mid-ranking club; good on the ball, great tackler, strong in the air and he's got an uncanny ability to block through balls. Facing Gonzalo Higuaín or Michu is likely to be his biggest test to date.