The current defending Gambrinus Liga champions, Sparta Prague, had a very strong finish to the first half of the season as they sealed qualification to UEFA Europa League knockout stages. Domestically, they finished like a steam train too, by rattling off 5 wins in a row, reducing Plzens lead at the top of the league to just 4 points.
Sparta produced some very good performances in Europe, in which they only lost one group game – away to CSKA Moscow. Their success was based on taking 4 points from Italian outfit Palermo, as both sides battled it out for the second qualifying spot. They finished off the group stages with a spirited 1-1 draw at home to CSKA Moscow, a game in which Sparta were unlucky not to take all 3 points.
But this Sparta team has been much changed during the January transfer window. Arguably Sparta’s two most influential players have left the club. Slovakian midfielder, Juraj Kucka moved to Genoa at the start of January for an undisclosed fee. Every time I watched Kucka play I was massively impressed, he shined at the World Cup for Slovakia and he made a strong start for Sparta this season.
Losing Kucka will be a huge blow for Sparta, as he provided energy and tenacity in the middle of the park for the Czechs. Kucka has slotted straight into the Genoa first team, a sign of his obvious talent. Perhaps even a bigger blow for Sparta is losing top scorer Bony Wilifred, the young Ivory Coast striker has signed for Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem for 4m Euros.
Taking Bony and Kucka out of the Sparta team makes them a very different proposition indeed. Bony was Sparta’s top scorer last season and had already scored 10 goals in 14 appearances this season, although the decision to sign for Vitesse could be seen as a sideways move. Its not just his goals that Sparta will miss, but his understanding with fellow striker Leonard Kweuke.
It’s not all departures for Sparta though; they have been active in the transfer market themselves. Signing 30 year-old defender Tomas Zapotocny from Besiktas, and followed that up signing 25 year-old striker Andrej Keric. The Croatian striker is an interesting signing, his debut season (2008/09) for Liberic saw him score 15 goals in 28 games, and finish as the Gambrinus Liga top scorer. But last season, Keric wasn’t so prolific, managing just 5 goals for Liberic as they finished in 9th place.
Sparta have also made a 6 month loan signing of Jablonec striker Tomas Pekhart. The young Czech has been in great form for Jablonec, weighing in with 11 goals in 15 games this season. It looks like Pekhart will partner Kweuke upfront for Sparta, with Keric possibly playing as a winger.
One player who shouldn’t be forgotten in all of this is Vaclav Kadlec, the jewel in the crown for Sparta Prague. The young 18 year-old striker has a lot of potential, as recently highlighted by being named in the top 10 talents of European Football.
Kadlec is an intelligent and powerful striker, with pace to burn. He has already represented the National team and a big future waits for the talented Czech. But, currently Vaclav has had to settle for a place on the bench at Sparta as the African pairing of Bony and Keuwkue had been preferred in the first half of the season.
It will be interesting to see just how Sparta will line up on February 17th, as their squad has undergone significant changes during the winter break. The front pairing of Kweuke and Pekhart screams height, both players tower well over 6 foot, so I would expect Kyriakos to be at centre back for Liverpool – and Sparta to be launching lots of long balls and crosses into the box.
Liverpool should prevail over the two legs, but the first game in Prague could be tricky for the reds. New signings Carroll (injured) and Suarez (eligible) will be unavailable, and I wonder where the goals will come from? Gerrard and Merieles should be dominating the Sparta midfield, and feel this is where the game will be won.