After being the first defending champions of the UEFA Champions League to be bundled out in the group stages the following year, Chelsea will be looking to start making amends when they take on Sparta Prague in the Europa League this week.
The Premier League giants were drawn into a tough group featuring Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus, but even still, given the talent of players that they currently have in their squad, they really should have done better throughout the tournament.
Their opponents finished second in Group I behind Lyon in the group stages of the competition, and will be looking to continue their strong tournament here.
Who will gain the upper hand in the first leg of this all-important Europa League clash? Read on to find a complete preview of the match including full viewing information.
Date: Thursday, February 14, 2013
Venue: Toyota Arena, Prague
Start time: 1 p.m. ET (6 p.m. British time)
Live Stream and TV Info
According to Live Soccer TV, the match will be available for viewing via Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Soccer 2Go. The match will also be covered via ESPN UK and ESPN HD throughout the United Kingdom.
The season so far: Sparta Prague
Sparta Prague recorded just one loss in the group stages of the Europa League, going down 3-1 to Lyon in France. Other than that, they recorded strong performances away from home against Athletic Bilbao and Ironi Kiryat Shmona, as well as a huge 3-1 victory over Bilbao in the Czech Republic.
They'll be looking to continue that strong run of form in the competition here when they welcome Chelsea to town—a place they haven't lost at all tournament.
Domestically speaking, Prague haven't been as solid, though they have been particularly hard to break down at home in that competition also.
They've scored 14 goals and conceded just five in their eight home games, but have managed just two road wins in that time also. If they're going to pull off some sort of shock win here and triumph over Chelsea in their round of 32 clash, then they're going to need to start with a big home performance here that gives them an advantage heading back to Stamford Bridge.
The season so far: Chelsea
The 2012-13 season has seemed so dramatic and complicated for Chelsea, and yet we're not even close to what we'd call the business end of the season.
They've already had a manager fired for something that we're still not completely sure of, we've seen the Blues bow out of the Champions League and into a tournament that they would not have prepared for at the start of the season. We've seen calls for Rafa Benitez's head, the arrival of a striker which could spell the end of Fernando Torres—and it's still only February.
One thing is for certain, the Blues do possess a great midfield and attacking unit and on their day, can be one of the top attacking sides in world football.
They've shown that well in the Premier League—netting the second most goals out of any team and currently sitting third on the ladder. Their attack might struggle against the home dominance of Sparta Prague, but even still, you'd have to think that the likes of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Demba Ba are more than capable of thriving away from home this year.
The Blues have notched up just three road losses from their 13 matches away from home in the Premier League this year, and will definitely be tough here.
Just how tough they'll be still remains to be seen, with Benitez no doubt desperate for a strong and commanding performance from the West Londoners.
What They're Saying
Sparta Prague goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik has spoken about his side's home-field dominance and how it could very well continue against Chelsea, telling the London Evening Standard that the Czech Republic team are more than ready for the Blues' arrival.
I believe we will add one more match to that run [undefeated at home in Europe] and travel to London with a result that keeps our chances alive. To succeed, we'll have to play our best football. Even if Chelsea are not having their best period right now, they have the winning mentality of a big club and self-confidence.
Midfielder Ladislav Krejči is also seemingly ready for this fixture, telling UEFA.com during the week that the club wait to play in such a big game.
Our coach [Vítězslav Lavička] keeps reminding us that we're preparing for a big game. This has helped our motivation in training, as we've known we've had to take that extra step or run even faster.
Everybody is taking this match as a reward for our performances in the group stage. It is a tremendous match, but that doesn't mean we don't want to get a good result. Like every footballer, I've dreamt of playing in a game like this against such a big club—I just couldn't imagine it would come so soon.
I feel respect toward the big names, but that will be gone once the referee first blows his whistle. We will fully concentrate on our performance.
Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez commented on how the club's mentality surrounding this game should be no different to the Champions League.
In terms of flights and games it's like the Champions League, in terms of mentality, the first thought is "hmm, it's different". But if you see the teams that are in the Europa League, you will see it could be quite difficult.
The day before we will fly, we will be there, they will realise it's Europe and they can concentrate 100%. I'm expecting that they will be focused. We will have to start thinking of it as a great competition, with good teams and we will try to do our best.
Whilst the Blues are certainly a great team in world football and one that possess a lethal attack, playing away from home in the Czech Republic certainly is an easy task—especially given the fact that it wouldn't have crossed their minds for the majority of the season either.
Sparta Prague have an incredible home record in 2012-13 and will seemingly be very tough to score against, even with the likes of Ba and Mata for Chelsea.
I'm not completely sure that the Czech team have enough firepower either to trouble the West Londoners' net, so I'm going with a low-scoring affair here that gives a slight edge to Chelsea heading back for the return game at the Bridge.
Final score: Sparta Prague 0, Chelsea 0
What do you think will happen between Sparta Prague and Chelsea?
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