I thought long and hard - read: five minutes - about making this preview serious or not-so-serious*. On one hand, it's Thursday; it's the Europa League; it's the red-headed stepchild of the UEFA Cup, the Cup-Winner's Cup, the Intertoto Cup, and Michel Platini's moneybags - that's right, it's a mixed household - struggling for relevance, burdened by a needless amount of fixtures, rounds, and group stages. On the other hand, it's Thursday; it's the Europa League; it's the last chance for any actual European relevance for the outgoing Champions of Europe.
* Related: should Chelsea take this seriously or not-so-seriously?
On one hand, Roman Abramovich has never had to taste the foul backwash of the Champions League - although there's a fantastic bit of symmetry in that the Roman Era's first ever (non-qualifying round) Champions League match was against tonight's opponents as well. On the other hand ... well, there's no other hand really, besides the entirely contrived and disingenuous goal of winning all the various European cups - if Chelsea were to win the Europa League, they'd join Juventus, Ajax Amsterdam, and Bayern Munich (your stadium; our trophy!) as the only teams to win each of the Champions League, the UEFA Cup, and the Cup Winner's Cup. Gotta collect them all!
On one hand, the team doesn't get to test its mettle against Europe's elite. On the other, the team doesn't belong among Europe's elite (not yet; not at this point anyway) so a consolation prize of getting to travel to the most beautiful city in all the land, once capital of yours truly's motherland, and where Petr Cech once played as a 19-year-old is quite ok in my book. So, win or lose, up the Blues! Time to get serious. Because make no mistake, this is the greatest of occasions for the hosts.
Date/Time: Thursday, February 14, 2013; 18:00 GMT; 1 P.M. EST; 11:30 P.M. IST
Venue: Generali Arena, Prague, Czech Republic
TV Information: ESPN (UK); Fox Soccer (USA); TEN Sports (India)
Too bad they don't hold this at Strahov (Stadium). But hurray for Thursday nights and odd kickoff times!
Sparta Prague: Historically, the greatest team ever in the Czech Republic and, before, in Czechoslovakia. After a second place finish last season, they're currently just third in the league; but twenty-one years ago, they even made it all the way to the de facto semifinals of the European Cup - reorganized as the Champions League the following season - finishing second in their group to eventual champions Barcelona. I remember watching that team, including their famous 1:0 victory over the Catalans with all their Koemans, and Laudrups, and Guardiolas, and Zubizarretas, and Nadals.
Just a squad player that day, Vítězslav Lavička* is now the manager of Sparta. Ten years into his managerial career, he's already had quite a storied history, including International management with the Czech U-21s and an A-League title with Sydney FC in 2009-10. It's nice to see an ex-player back in charge of his club, isn't it?
* SB Nation markup discriminates against the mäkčeň or háček (i.e. caron) so his name (also, ironically, the words mäkčeň or háček itself) doesn't quite have the same flourish as it normally would have...
For a full run-down of the major characters in the Sparta team, check out this (re)introduction from @theczechup. You might see a familiar name or two in there, including Jiří Jarošík, now a center back, but who sadly looks to miss out. Sparta also count ex-Premier Leaguer and cocaine enthusiast Roman Bednář and Marek Matějovský (he of the wonder goal vs. the two-headed mythical beast of Benitez-Torres) amongst their ranks. Once ultra-hyped FM wonder kid/sprinter, Václav Kadlec should also make an appearance, possibly in tandem with new signing, Gambrinus League top scorer, and Czech international striker David Lafata.
Most interestingly, to me, the other option at forward is a certain Leonard Kweuke, 25, a Cameroonian international, who broke into European football under most shady circumstances at my home town club. He scored 11 in just half a season at struggling DAC (especially in terms of actually paying their players), before the football gods (and "businessmen") took mercy on him and loaned him into German football. Eventually he was sold, and he's averaged about 1-in-2 ever since for Sparta.
Chelsea: Just 19 players were named to the squad, with the Nigerian contingent still absent, David Luiz suspended, and Demba Ba cup tied. On the positive side, John Terry looks ready to go and Gary Cahill's slight knock, limp, strain, or whatever it was that he picked up vs. Wigan seems to have not had any lasting effect.
Despite that, there's no denying that Chelsea look a bit ragged for this one. Ragged in form, ragged in determination, ragged in fitness, ragged in depth, ragged in leadership, ragged in management. Ragged.
The Europa League may be Mickey Mouse compared to the Champions League, but the hosts will be hungry for victory and headlines. And I mean headlines beyond the obvious and already tired "Petr Cech homecoming" ones. In fact, it's looking almost ominous for our beloved Blues. But never mind my sense of impending doom (I knew I shouldn't have taken this seriously!). Juan Mata will save us.
I hope. One a cold, freezing, Thursday night somewhere in Central Europe. I hope.