Who: AC Sparta Prague vs. Chelsea FC
What: Europa League round of 32 (first leg; second leg, Feb. 21 at Stamford Bridge)
Where: Generali Arena, Prague, Czech Republic
When: Thursday, February 14, 2013
Weather: The Weather Channel
Time: 18:00 GMT/1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT
Television: Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Soccer 2Go (USA), ESPN UK / HD (UK)
Referee: Daniele Orsato (Italy)
Three-Way Odds: Chelsea -161, Sparta Prague +400, Draw +240
Total: Over 2½ +110, Under 2½ -149
Decimal Odds: Chelsea 1.62, Sparta Prague 5.00, Draw 3.40
Decimal Total: Over 2½ 2.10, Under 2½ 1.67
Fractional Odds: Chelsea 31/50, Sparta Prague 4/1, Draw 12/5
Fractional Total: Over 2½ 11/10, Under 2½ 67/100
Odds To Win Europa League: Chelsea +650 (11/2), Sparta Prague +25,000 (250/1)
Source: Sportsbook.com (Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles)
So it's not exactly the European tournament Chelsea wanted or expected to be playing in on Valentine's Day, but it is the one they're in now, so why not try to make a run at becoming the fifth club to complete a sweep of the continent's five main trophies?
The schizophrenic Blues arrived in the Czech capital earlier in the week with a 19-man squad devoid of David Luiz, Oriol Romeu, John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses and Demba Ba.
Luiz is suspended, Romeu is still injured, Ba is ineligible after playing for Newcastle United earlier in the tournament and Nigerians Mikel and Moses will be absent after their participation in the Africa Cup of Nations tourney which was won by the Super Eagles over Burkina Faso 1-0 on Sunday.
Three defensive stalwarts for Chelsea who will be available on Thursday and will possibly be in interim manager Rafael Benitez's starting XI are captain John Terry, Gary Cahill and Petr Cech, although Terry's inclusion may be a question mark.
Terry is still recovering from a knee injury, Cahill left the Wigan Athletic game with a cramp, while Cech has a hairline fracture fracture on his left little finger after accidentally punching Cahill's head during play against Newcastle.
Despite the absence of so many key cogs in the Blues attack, Cech's presence against his former club (2001-02) should be paramount in this tournament opener for the defending European (UEFA Champions League) title holders.
One good thing here for Chelsea is that because of the Czech winter break, Sparta Prague have not been involved in a competitive match since Dec. 6, which means rust may end up becoming a big factor for Zelezna Sparta's (Iron Sparta) offensive attack.
Although they haven't played a match in quite some time, Sparta have added some considerable talent to their roster over the last seven months, signing former West Bromwich Albion striker Roman Bednar from Sivasspor in the Turkish Super Lig in August and acquiring David Lafata—the top scorer in the Czech Republic's Gambrinus Liga over the last two years—from league rival FK Jablonec 97 earlier this year.
And with skillful wingers Vaclav Kadlec and Ladislav Krejci joining the talented Lafata, the Blues defense will be tested by Sparta, who are undefeated in their last 11 matches at Generali Arena, which is a sellout for this massive game for the home team.
In goal, Sparta's Tomas Vaclik will try to hold down the defense against the Blues attack, which will likely see Fernando Torres starting at the striker spot in the club's familiar 4-2-3-1 formation and the Three Amigos troika of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard in the advanced midfield.
Sparta advanced to the round of 32 by finishing second in the Europa League's Group I with a 2-3-1 record and nine points, outscoring opponents 6-3 in those six matches. But for manager Vitezslav Lavicka—a boon for Scrabble players if proper names were allowed in the renowned board game—and his team, defeating Chelsea here will be quite some undertaking.
The last time these two sides met in Prague was almost a decade ago in Champions League play when the Blues shut out the hosts 1-0 on a goal by William Gallas, while the last appearance by Chelsea in this tourney was in 2002-03 when it lost to Norwegian side Viking FK 5-4 on aggregate.
Chelsea's Benitez won this competition a year later (2003-04) when he was head man at La Liga's Valencia.
Getting off to a good start and securing a win here against Sparta will be crucial for the Blues, who have just one win—a 4-1 victory over Wigan Athletic in their last game on Feb. 9—in their last five competitions.
But to do so, Chelsea will need solid performances from Frank Lampard and Ramires in the defensive midfield and at least a goal or two from Mata, Hazard and Oscar on the attack.
And one guy who should really be up for this game and motivated to shine in his homeland is Cech, who, when not in goal, makes the English Premier League side look pretty mediocre.
Despite the injuries and absentees here, expect a top-notch performance from the Blues, who have come up disappointingly short on all attempts to bring any silverware back to West London since their historic Champions League win in May.
BETS: Chelsea -161, Over 2½ +110
PREDICTION: Chelsea 3, Sparta Prague 1
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