Thu 14 Feb 2013 18:00 (Attendance: 18,952)
The two-month break in European competition draws to an end with a match in central Europe. Club historian Rick Glanvill and club statistician Paul Dutton come over all Bohemian…
Thank you, Champions League, it was lovely spending time with you - we hope to be back soon. Hello Europa League - have we met before? Ah, 10 years ago. It seems longer.
Since then the former UEFA Cup has gained an anthem. It's hardly Handel-esque, not recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and sung by the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields Chorus. But Yohann Zveig's instrumental, played by the Paris Opera, is stirring in its way.
Failure to progress from the Champions League group stage for the first time - despite scoring the most goals in the competition - meant the champions of Europe landing in the Europa League last 32. Unlike Manchester City, who bowed out altogether, Chelsea can still accrue the vital coefficient points required to avoiding tougher draws in future competitions.
The Europa League brings fresh challenges. It has added two games to our already busy schedule and Petr Cech et al will have to familiarise themselves with yet another matchball - the ninth of the campaign. Revenue in prize money and TV rights is vastly reduced but the benefit of winning the Europa is estimated at £10m and it is the only major UEFA trophy that has eluded us in all its guises over the years.
If we could win at the Amsterdam ArenA in May we would become the first English club to complete the UEFA set. Arsenal, Ipswich, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and Tottenham are previous winners of this competition. Of them only the Anfield club have lifted the European Cup/Champions League like Chelsea and they never tasted success in the now defunct UEFA Cup-Winners' Cup.
In fact only Juventus, Ajax and the side we beat in last year's final, Bayern Munich, have won all three of UEFA's major tournaments.
The demands added to the fixtures list are serious ones, however. The last clear week for all the players at Cobham training was the end of August leading up to the Super Cup against Atlético Madrid.
By then Prague had seen off Admira and drawn at Feyenoord in this competition. This is their 11th Europa League game this season.
Chelsea last contested this cup a decade ago under Claudio Ranieri and Rafael Benitez lifted it with Valencia in 2004 and took Liverpool to the semi-finals in 2009/10. His first European game at the helm of Chelsea was a 6-1 win over Nordsjaelland, but the damage had already been done.
Should we progress beyond Sparta and Ajax or Bucharest there are several strong sides in the competition, including Inter, Dynamo Kiev, Lazio, Napoli, Benfica and Atlético. Not to mention the English sides Newcastle, Liverpool and Spurs, whom we could meet from the quarter finals on.
But first we must outwit Petr Cech's former club Sparta Prague and their manager Vítēzslav Lavīcka (pictured below). The former midfielder spent his entire playing career and most of his time as coach in the Czech Republic and has been in the Sparta hot seat since July.
However the 49-year-old also had a near three-year spell at Sydney FC between 2008 and 2011. He quit the A-League side (two seasons after steering them to their first league and cup double) in order to be closer to his family.
Universally admired for his friendliness and approachability, Lavīcka came under fire for his instinctively conservative, almost attritional tactics and seeming inability to change the course of a match with in-play switches. He favoured a 4-diamond-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation and rarely deviated.
At Sparta expectations are perennially high. They led the Gambrinus Liga from early on before slipping back and when the winter break arrived in late November they were third.
Tonight's combatants may be at different stages of match-readiness. This is Sparta's first competitive action since a 0-0 away to bottom club Pribram on 25 November. Although they are playing a few friendlies, their domestic league resumes only after the second leg of this tie.
Their Europa League group stage campaign included an impressive 3-1 win over Athletic Bilbao and a draw with Lyon. Both results came at home where they are considerably stronger. Their last successful European away jaunt was in November 2010 at Lausanne.
However Sparta are unbeaten in seven games in all competitions at Stadion Letná, and have not lost at home in this competition since a 3-0 Copenhagen victory in December 2009.
Don't be caught out by the early kick-off, which is 18.00 UK time. The game is covered live on ESPN and ESPN HD.
Chelsea are three goals away from 300 in UEFA competitions. It would be ironic to reach such that figure against a team called Sparta.
This game has come too soon for the involvement of Chelsea's newly crowned champions of Africa, John Mikel Obi and Victor Moses. Mikel, still only 25, is now top dog on two continents: to the Africa Cup of Nations and Champions League can be added a Premier League title, four FA Cups and a League Cup.
The Super Eagles' skipper was named man of the match after the final, while his equally influential teammate Moses was named Samsung's Fair Player of the Tournament.
Following his impressive showings the Blues' 19-year-old central defender Kenneth Omeruo will return to his loan club Den Haag.
Selection of the 16 Europa League ties tonight
Zenit St Petersburg v Liverpool 5pm
Ajax v Steaua Bucharest 6pm
Sparta Prague v Chelsea 6pm
Newcastle v Metalist Kharkiv 8.05pm
Tottenham v Lyon 8.05pm
The winners of our tie will play Ajax or Steaua Bucharest in the last 16. Should Chelsea progress we will be away in the first leg.
Click on tabs above for more briefing.
Chelsea will still be without key players for the first action in this competition since2002. Demba Ba is ineligible as he has played for Newcastle in this competition, David Luíz is suspended and Africa Cup of Nations winners Victor Moses and John Mikel Obi are not in contention to return.
Luíz's absence means that Ramires will probably move back from the forward role in which he was again effective against Wigan. Others are building up attacking momentum though: Fernando Torres has made three goals in three games, right-back Cesar Azpilicueta has four in four in the league, while Frank Lampard has hit goals in five consecutive Premier League games.
Sparta will also be wary of the threat from Oscar, who appears to like European competition - he is our top scorer on the continent with five.
Sparta used a 4-2-3-1 formation throughout the group stage, played tight and looked for the counter punch. They like to play the ball out from the back and Chelsea's bustling three in attacking midfield will be looking to pounce at any opportunity.
The Blues defensive disorder has been a cause concern recently and Rafael Benitez must be eager to deploy a fit-again John Terry if only for his organisational qualities.
Prague have plenty of sharpness upfront too. Young attacker Vaclav Kadlec is their joint top scorer in this tournament with three (including both in the 2-2 draw at Feyenoord), though the man he shares that title with, powerful Camerounian Léonard Kweuke is often preferred in the solo role. Neither should be underestimated, especially supported by Albanian playmaker Bekim Balaj, who has scored five times in 10 games since his arrival from KF Tirana.
The Czechs have a registered a squad for the remainder of this tournament that is six players lighter than in the group stages. Yet during the winter break they bought prolific 31-year-old centre-forward David Lafata from Jablonec and Lukáš Vácha, a defensive midfielder, from Slovan Liberec.
More experience was added to their Europa League squad list in journeyman Roman Bednár, 29, who was unattached and last seen playing for West Brom against our U21s in 2011. He has lost three matches against our seniors at an aggregate of 11 goals for the Blues. He is pictured below.
Even more familiar is Jiri Jarošík, a Premier League champion with the Blues in 2004/05 who has now figured in 72 UEFA matches. He, however is out injured for tonight's first leg with hamstring trouble.
Depending on team selection, both teams could have a Cech in goal. Sparta's Marek Cech is not related to Petr. Former Newcastle man Pavel Srníček is the Czech side's goalkeeping coach.
Squad fitness news
Oriol Romeu (knee) is the only Chelsea player definitely ruled out due to injury.
Sparta will be without midfielders Jiri Jarosik and Pavel Kaderabek, and forward Tomas Prikryl.
Click on tabs above for more briefing.
A few tickets remain for next week's second leg at Stamford Bridge - on general sale.
WE HAVE HISTORY
The only previous competitive meeting between Chelsea and Sparta Prague came in the 2003/04 group stage of the Champions League in a pool including Beşiktaş and Lazio. Chelsea won the group with Sparta runners-up.
The away leg was crucial to the Blues' progress in the first campaign of the Roman Abramovich era. Several of the big new signings his investment had brought to the club failed to dazzle in Bohemia.
Adrian Mutu had to leave the field injured. The Romanian striker had gone close with a very early header and had one other shot of significance but made way at half-time with replacement Damien Duff also helping shore up a midfield that was losing out to the hosts for periods of the game.
Hernan Crespo, playing upfront on his own much of the time, had been slipped clear by Emmanuel Petit but shot straight at keeper Blazek. When he wasted another chance set up by Juan Sebastian Veron Claudio Ranieri opted for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink instead.
Eventually it was another pre-Abramovich player, William Gallas, who broke the deadlock. Duff fizzed in a dangerous late cross that Hasselbaink flcked on and the France defender swept in from close range in the 85th minute.
The two sides played out a dull 0-0 in the return at the Bridge.
OUR PREVIOUS MEETING IN PRAGUE
Chelsea's biggest away win in Europe
Jeunesse Hautcharage 0-8 Chelsea - 15/09/1971
European Cup Winners Cup 1st round 1st leg
Sparta's biggest home win in Europe
Sparta Prague 10-0 Anorthosis Famagusta - 16/09/1964
European Cup Winners' Cup preliminary round first leg
Chelsea last played in this competition: 3,787
Sparta beat an English team in UEFA competition on home soil: 10,662
Arsenal won a trophy: 2,825
Liverpool won the league: 8,320
Visit again at lunchtime for Part Two of the Briefing
Petr Cech played for Sparta as a 19-year-old in the 2001/02 season before moving to French side Rennes at the end of that season.
Although we are making our debut in the Europa League, we have played three unsuccessful seasons in its predecessor the UEFA Cup, which itself succeeded the non-UEFA Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.
|Rd 1||St Gallen||H 1-0||A 0-2|
|Rd 1||Levski Sofia||H 3-0||A 2-0|
|Rd 2||Hapoel Tel-Aviv||A 0-2||H 1-1|
|Rd 1||Viking Stavanger||H 2-1||A 2-4|
The Blues are looking to become the only English club to win all three major UEFA competitions having won the Champions League last season and the Cup Winners' Cup in 1971 and 1998. Three clubs that have achieved it are Juventus, Ajax and Bayern Munich.
|Chelsea's away record against Czech teams|
|1994/95||Viktoria Žižkov||D 0-0||Cup Winners' Cup first round second leg|
|2003/04||Sparta Prague||W 1-0||Champions League group stage|
Chelsea's last ten years in Europe
2002/03 - UEFA Cup - first round
2003/04 - Champions League - semi-final
2004/05 - Champions League - semi-final
2005/06 - Champions League - round of 16
2006/07 - Champions League - semi-final
2007/08 - Champions League - runners-up
2008/09 - Champions League - semi-final
2009/10 - Champions League - round of 16
2010/11 - Champions League - quarter-final
2011/12 - Champions League - winners
|Champions League Group E final table|
|Last six results|
|Jan 20||Arsenal (h)||W 2-1|
|Jan 23||Swansea (League Cup SF 2 a)||D 0-0|
|Jan 27||Brentford (FA Cup 4 a)||D 2-2|
|Jan 30||Reading (a)||D 2-2|
|Feb 2||Newcastle (a)||L 2-3|
|Feb 9||Wigan (h)||W 4-1|
Scorers Mata 16, Torres 15 (1 pen), Lampard 12 (5 pens), E Hazard 9 (2 pens), Oscar 7 (1 pen), Cahill 6, Ivanovic 6, Ramires 6, Moses 5, D Luiz 4 (2 pens), Ba 3, Bertrand 2, Sturridge 2, Cole 1, Marin 1, Romeu 1 (pen), Terry 1, own goals 3. Total 100
|Chelsea's next three games|
|Sun 17 Feb||Brentford (FA Cup 4 replay) home||Noon|
|Thu 21 Feb||Sparta Prague (Europa League) home||8.05pm|
|Sun 24 Feb||Manchester City away||1.30pm|
Frank Lampard needs a brace to reach 200 goals for Chelsea and four to equal our all-time top scorer Bobby Tambling.
Marko Marin scored our 100th goal of the season against Wigan in our 43rd game of the season - the second equal fastest in our history (with 2009/10). The quickest we have achieved a ton was in 1960/61 when it took 40 games.
If selected, Branislav Ivanovic will make his 200th appearance for the Blues.
24 Czechoslovak league titles, last in 1993
12 Czechoslovak Cups, last in 1992
11 Czech Republic league titles, last in 2010
5 Czech Republic Cups, last in 2008
1 Czech Republic Super Cup in 2010
The capacity of Sparta's Generali Arena is just under 20,000. Their crowds for their group matches were Athletic Bilbao 13,752, Hapoel Kiryat Shmona 10,324 and Lyon 17,121.
Sparta are unbeaten in five European games. At home their unbeaten run is 11 games (six wins, five draws) since a 0-2 defeat by MŠK Žilina in the 2010/11 Europa League play-offs.
When Sparta last reached the last 32 in 2010/11 they were beaten 1-0 on aggregate by Liverpool. Their best season in this competition was 1983/84 when they reached the quarter-finals.
Sparta Prague haven't beaten English opposition at home since 1983. Their six games since then have resulted in four defeats and two draws.
|Last ten league seasons|
Sparta have not played a competitive game since Matchday 6 of the Europa League in December due to the winter break in their league. Since returning to training in January they have played five friendlies, the last three of which were at a training camp in Jerez, Spain.
The Czech league resumes the Sunday after our second leg at Stamford Bridge.
|Mid-season friendly results|
|Jan 23||Dukla Banská Bystrica||D 0-0|
|Jan 25||Ružomberok||W 4-0|
|Feb 1||Guangzhou||D 1-1|
|Feb 4||Krasnodar||L 2-3|
|Feb 6||Concordia Chiajna||W 3-1|
|Sparta's home games against English teams in Europe|
|1964/65||West Ham||W 2-1||Cup Winners' Cup first round second leg|
|1970/71||Leeds||L 2-3||Fairs Cup third round second leg|
|1983/84||Watford||W 4-0||UEFA Cup third round second leg|
|2000/01||Arsenal||L 0-1||Champions League group stage|
|2003/04||Chelsea||L 0-1||Champions League group stage|
|2004/05||Man Utd||D 0-0||Champions League group stage|
|2005/06||Arsenal||L 0-2||Champions League group stage|
|2007/08||Arsenal||L 0-2||Champions League third qualifying round 1st leg|
|2010/11||Liverpool||D 0-0||Europa League round of 32 first leg|
Ten-year European record
2002/03 - UEFA Cup second round having transferred from the Champions League third qualifying round
2003/04 - Champions League round of 16
2004/05 - Champions League group stage
2005/06 - Champions League group stage
2006/07 - UEFA Cup group stage
2007/08 - UEFA Cup group stage having transferred from the Champions League third qualifying round
2008/09 - UEFA Cup first round having transferred from the Champions League third qualifying round
2009/10 - Europa League group stage having transferred from the Champions League third qualifying round
2010/11 - Europa League round of 32 having transferred from the Champions League play-offs
2011/12 - Europa League play-offs
2012/13 - Europa League results
|2012/13 Europa League results|
|Third qualifying round|
|Aug 2||FC Admira Wacker Mödling (a)||W 2-0|
|Aug 9||FC Admira Wacker Mödling (h)||D 2-2|
|Aug 23||Feyenoord (a)||D 2-2|
|Aug 30||Feyenoord (h)||W 2-0|
|Sep 20||Lyon (a)||L 1-2|
|Oct 4||Athletic Bilbao (h)||W 3-1|
|Oct 25||Hapoel Kiryat Shmona (h)||W 3-1|
|Nov 8||Hapoel Kiryat Shmona (a)||D 1-1|
|Nov 22||Lyon (h)||D 1-1|
|Dec 6||Athletic Bilbao (a)||D 0-0|
Europa League scorers (excluding qualifying games):
Hušbauer 2 (1 pen), Krejčí 2, Balaj 1, Kadlec 1, Kweuke 1, Švejdík 1, Zápotočný 1. Total 9.
|Europa League Group I final table|
|Hapoel Kiryat Shmona||6||0||2||4||6||13||2|
|Last six domestic results|
|Oct 31||Viktoria Žižkov (Cup a) won 4-3 on pens||D 1-1aet|
|Nov 3||Mladá Boleslav (a)||D 1-1|
|Nov 11||Zbrojovka Brno (h)||W 2-0|
|Nov 17||FK Teplice (h)||W 1-0|
|Nov 25||FK Příbram (a)||D 0-0|
|Nov 29||Vysočina Jihlava (Cup a)||D 1-1|
|Gambrinus Liga top six|
THE MAN IN THE MIDDLE
The referee is Daniele Orsato and his assistants are from Italy. He has not previously taken charge of a game featuring either side.
Demba Ba is cup-tied, having played for Newcastle United in this competition.
David Luiz is suspended for one game after receiving a third yellow card in the Champions League against Nordsjaelland.
Europa League bookings list
Players receive a one-match suspension for collecting three and five yellow cards
Sparta (11): Kadlec 2, Matĕjovský 2, Zápotočný 2, Hušbauer 1, Jarošík 1, Kaderabek 1, Kweuke 1, Pavelka 1.
Chelsea (6): D Luiz 3, Ramires 2, Cole 1
The Blues go into next Thursday's return leg with a slender 1-0 advantage after Oscar came off the bench to produce a moment of magic and score the only goal of the game at the Generali Arena.
Following a first half in which we had dominated without making the breakthrough, the game appeared to be heading towards a stalemate as Sparta Prague defended deep, and in large numbers, after the break.
Eight minutes from time, however, the Brazilian swung the balance of the tie in Chelsea favour with what could prove to be a crucial away goal, his fifth in Europe this season, latching on to an Eden Hazard flick and finishing smartly.
We now have only a few days to recover before we welcome Brentford to Stamford Bridge for our FA Cup fourth round replay on Sunday, a game we now approach in good spirits after back-to-back wins.
Rafael Benitez made three changes to the team which beat Wigan Athletic last weekend. In defence, Ryan Bertrand came into the side at the expense of Ashley Cole, while in midfield, Ramires partnered Frank Lampard with David Luiz missing through suspension. Marko Marin and Juan Mata, both late substitutes at the weekend, started, but John Terry, Cole and Oscar had to be content with places on the bench. Demba Ba was unavailable after representing Newcastle United earlier in the competition.
It was a confident start by the Blues, who began the game on the front foot. Hazard appeared to be brought down right on the edge of the penalty area inside the opening couple of minutes only to see his appeals for a free-kick fall on deaf ears, while a minute later Lampard forced Tomas Vaclik into the first save of the game.
Our quick, incisive attacking play, particularly on the break, was causing Sparta Prague all manner of problems early on, with Marin and Hazard instrumental.
The duo combined down the left-hand side with a clever exchange of passes, but as the Belgian raced into the box he dragged his shot across the face of the goal.
As an attacking force, the hosts had been fairly quiet, but David Lafata, making his competitive debut for Sparta, will feel he should have done better when he met a cross from the right and volleyed high over the bar.
Lafata had been the most prolific marksman in the Czech top flight for the past two seasons, and his movement during the opening exchanges suggested both Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill would need to remain alert.
The home supporters were appealing for a penalty after 25 minutes when Cesar Azpilicueta and Ladislav Krejcl went shoulder-to-shoulder inside the box after the Spaniard had displayed a terrific burst of pace to recover. In truth, it was an ambitious shout, and one that referee Daniele Orsato quite rightly waved away.
As the half wore on the home side were gradually beginning to ask questions of the Blues defence, but 11 minutes before the break we should have broken the deadlock.
Marin picked out Hazard, who in turn found the marauding Mata; the Spaniard then helped it into the path of Torres, but the striker couldn't get enough power behind his shot and was thwarted by the feet of Vaclik.
Marin's start to his Chelsea career had been dogged by injury, but after scoring his first goal against Wigan and also netting for the Under-21 side on Monday, the confidence was flowing through the German in what was undoubtedly his most impressive display in a blue shirt thus far.
At the other end, however, the warning signs hadn't subsided, and it was Lafata again going close eight minutes before the break, pouncing on a cross from the right and firing inches past Cech's left-hand post.
Both sides emerged for the second half with no changes to personnel, and it was Sparta who had the first sight of goal, Matej Hybs shooting straight at Petr Cech from long-range.
We were enjoying plenty of possession but, unlike during the opening 45 minutes, attacks were tending to break down in the final third.
There was no doubt that Sparta had spoken at the break of the need to limit the supply to our creative players, and their new-found approach appeared to be working.
With 22 minutes left to play Benitez made his first substitution of the night, introducing Yossi Benayoun at the expense of Marin, who looked to be tiring.
It took until the 69th minute for us to trouble Vaclik, as Lampard headed straight into the arms of the goalkeeper from Mata's cross, and as the clock ticked down it became clear that one goal would probably be enough to win the game.
With nine minutes remaining Benitez made a second switch, replacing Mata with Oscar, and it was a substitution which paid off within a minute.
With his first touch of the ball Oscar collected it in his path, before exchanging passes with Hazard on the edge of the box, easing away from his marker and drilling his strike into the bottom corner of the net.
It was a goal which came at the perfect time, and while we'd struggled to create many clear-cut opportunities during the second half, on the balance of play it was probably deserved.
Shortly after we almost doubled our advantage as Torres forced a magnificent save from Vaclik with a powerful strike which looked destined for the top corner, but with only minutes remaining the main priority was ensuring we didn't concede.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Azpilicueta, Cahill, Ivanovic, Bertrand; Ramires, Lampard (c); Hazard, Mata (Oscar 81), Marin (Benayoun 67); Torres.
Unused substitutes: Turnbull, Cole, Ferreira, Terry, Ake.
Scorer Oscar 82
Booked Cahill 40
Sparta Prague (4-3-3): Vaclik; Zapotocny, Svejdik, Holek, Hybs; Husbauer (Bednar 84), Vacha, Matejovsky (c); Kadlec, Lafata (Kweuke 75), Krejci (Pamic 81).
Unused substitutes: M Cech, Vidlicka, Polom, Janos.
Booked Husbauer 66
Referee Daniele Orsato (Italy)