European Football

Sparta’s chance to make history

imageThis weekend’s Czech Cup Final could see already-crowned Liga champions Sparta Prague complete their first “double” since 1989. That in itself would be an achievement, but Sparta blew the chance of completing the league season unbeaten on May 3 when they surprisingly lost to Teplice 3-1.

With two games to go, Sparta have accumulated 73 points from 28 games, dropping just 11 all season. The cup final will be first v second, Sparta against Viktoria Plzen, who won the Czech Liga in 2012-13, edging out Sparta by just two points. Sparta will be trying their luck in the Champions League again in 2014-15, entering at the second qualifying round.

Students of European football will regret that the free-market capitalism that has swept the game has rendered clubs like Sparta fairly impotent. A couple of seasons ago, Sparta played Chelsea in the Europa League. Their fans were brilliant, sending their deep, throaty support into the cold night air, drowning out the home fans at Stamford Bridge.

Thirty years earlier, a two-legged European tie with Sparta would have sent shivers down the spine of the managers of British clubs. Don’t forget, this is a club that got to the final stages of the European Cup in 1992. Today, Sparta and a lot of their mid-European neigbours are really Europa League material, the modern day equivalent of the Mitropa Cup. Away ties in Central and Eastern Europe, especially behind the Iron Curtain, were tricky affairs. Some British teams even took their own food!

Today, Sparta are merely the top team in a league that is now ranked 17th in the world. Crowds are poor, although this season, they have risen by around 5% to an average of 5,031. But the lowest crowd in the Gambrinus Liga (the sponsor is a beer, hardly a surprise in a country that brews some of the world’s best) this season was 391, recorded at Znojmo.

While Sparta’s league record is strong, many people say Plzen are the best team in the Liga. Regardless, Sparta clinched their 36th title without playing. Their defeat at Teplice – ending the only unbeaten league record in Europe – was followed by Plzen’s draw with FK Jablonec, which meant that the reigning champions could not catch Sparta.

Sparta have been fuelled by the firepower of midfielder Josef Husbauer, he’s averaged a goal every two games and has been voted Czech player of the year. But he may be denied the “Golden Boot” as top scorer in the league by team-mate and Sparta skipper David Lafata, who is just a goal behind him. If Husbauer does come out on top, he will be the first midfielder to do so in Czech football history.

Husbauer and Lafata were both on the scoresheet as Sparta brushed aside bottom-of-the-table Sigma Olomouc by 5-0 as a warm-up for the cup final. The Czech Cup is a somewhat arduous campaign, with all ties from the last 16 two-legged. Sparta reached the final by beating Zlin (a 1-0), Znojmo (5-3 agg), city rivals Dukla (3-2 agg) and Jablonec (5-3 agg).

The final promises to be a cracker, but there may not be much between the two teams. The Czech season started with a goalless draw in Plzen between the two sides and at the beginning of March, a single goal from Tomas Prikryl gave Sparta a 1-0 win against their nearest rivals in front of almost 19,000 people. The Czech Liga averages 2.85 goals per game (better than England’s 2.77 and Italy’s 2.71 and the same as Spain), so we should expect better than the odd goal…

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