Ahead of Southampton's UEFA Europa League match against Sparta Praha, we spoke to Czech journalist Radim Trusina to get the lowdown on Thursday’s opponents.
Southampton and Sparta play each other as the top two in the group. How will Sparta approach this game?
Sparta has a lot of problems with injuries. There are now ten players on the injury list, so it’s a really big injury calamity in the team. Coach David Holoubek was joking: It is easy for me to announce the line-up for the match, when I have only eleven players without injury. After the last league match against Karviná, in which he had to play with four teenagers from the junior team – two of them are only 17-years-old – he said: “I am out of humour now...” But Sparta played well, and despite these problems won 3-0. In the league table, Sparta is now fifth, and that is a big disappointment. Of course, it goes together.
Following September's defeat, Sparta have won three Europa League games. What sparked that turnaround?
The match against Inter Milan, definitely. It was a shock, maybe a huge one, that Sparta won this game 3-1. It was the first match for the new coach David Holoubek (former youth coach at Sparta and former boss Zdeněk Ščasný’s assistant) and this time there were already problems with injuries. But Sparta were better, aggressive, and high-powered. Sparta gained self-confidence that this team can play against stronger teams without fears. Nobody expected it, because the first match in the group at Southampton, it was terrible. And I have to say that, in Be’er Sheva, Sparta had a good luck. The home team was absolutely better, but Sparta scored once and won this match.
How different is the Sparta team to the one that played here in September?
I spoke about it a little bit in the first answer: there are a lot of players that Sparta miss now. But for sure, Sparta plays better on the defensive side. And I have the feeling that in the team there is –despite of a lot of problems – a better atmosphere. Under coach Zdeněk Ščasný, Sparta had to win every single game, because it is the biggest Czech club and it was really big pressure. Now it is just a little bit easier – young players can win, but they don’t have to. The second thing is that Sparta needs one point to go through the group, and that would be a big success. The motivation for the game with Southampton is really massive.
What impact has there been since Zdeněk Ščasný's departure as manager?
Sparta is better organised during the game and in my eyes there is also a bigger encouragement from the fans. They expected the Czech title and Champions League... Without trophies, they lost patience with Ščasný and were very sensitive to his every single word before and after matches. Now, they love Holoubek, and they want him to stay on the bench, despite the fact that he has no UEFA pro-licence, but he is now studying for it.
Has Sparta's view of the Europa League changed in any way now they are top of the group?
Of course, that view has now changed. Sparta has a big chance to go through and it would be disappointing now if Sparta won’t be first or second in the group. For Sparta, it is still more important to be on top in the Czech league, because for the team with the title it is much easier to try to go to the Champions League, but now Sparta wants to continue in the Europa League. After reaching the quarter-finals last season, it would be an unexpected success, because Inter Milan and Southampton are big teams and Be’er Sheva play really well. We must not forget the financial side. Every step like this in the Europa League is not inconsiderable for Czech teams.
What can Southampton expect from Sparta as the home team in this game?
Southampton can expect cold weather! And the home team's desire for a point. Southampton is now favourite for the game, but Sparta is traditionally stronger at home. Sparta wants to go through now, not to wait for the match at Inter. Maybe Sparta don’t have the top football quality now, but they will have the energy for this match for sure. Sparta will be prepared on the tactical side and will fight for every single ball. That is for sure. This situation is similar like it was before the match against Inter. But now Sparta is much calmer.
Radim Trusina is a journalist who covers Sparta for the largest Czech daily newspaper MF DNES. (idnes.cz).