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.
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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