In a first of its kind, Chelsea will be plying their trade in the Europa League, while teams across Europe work towards claiming the Champions League title that currently belongs to the Blues.
At the beginning of the season, Chelsea, charged up to defend their European title, something that no team has done in the Champions League era, would never have imagined having to drop down to the second-tier European competition.
However, that is how things stand at the moment, and the already under pressure Rafa Benitez will have the monumental task of motivating the players into giving it their all in the Europa League, just months after sealing their first ever Champions League triumph.
Chelsea’s first test will be at Sparta Prague in the first leg of the round of 32, and Benitez is confident his squad will stand up and deliver, despite their disappointment of missing out on another Champions League knockout run.
“We will need some time (to talk),” Benitez said. “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 percent. 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.”
Europa League is only one of two trophies that Chelsea can challenge for this season, having seen quite a few slip from their grasp as the season has progressed. The English Premier League title is well out of their reach, with Manchester United 16 points ahead of the Blues with just 12 games remaining.
The only thing that will pose a problem for Chelsea now will be the daunting prospect of having to play on a Thursday night, as all Europa League games are played, and then almost immediately going back into domestic action Sunday.
Petr Cech, who will return to his native country to take on former side Sparta Prague where he played one season, believes Chelsea’s Thursday opponents cannot be taken for granted.
“The game against us will be their first competitive match since December,” Cech said.
“They recently signed David Lafata, who has been the top scorer in the Czech Republic for the past two seasons, as well as Roman Bednar, who used to play for West Bromwich Albion.
“They will have options, and they are a team with a good blend of young, hungry players and experienced ones.
“For them, it will be the biggest game of their careers, so that’s a danger because they will want to show they can do well against us.”
Chelsea skipper John Terry, who missed the weekend’s win over Wigan, is ruled out while Benitez will has left behind Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel, who only recently returned after winning the Africa Cup of Nations for Nigeria.
Demba Ba is cup-tied having played for Newcastle, so will not be eligible to take part for Chelsea in this season’s Europa League, with David Luiz suspended.
Probable Lineups :
Vidlicka, Svejdik, Zapotocny, Pamic
Kadlec, Husbauer, Vacek, Matejovsky, Krejci
Azpilicueta,Ivanovic, Cahill, Bertrand
Key Stats :
- Sparta Prague first began their Europa League campaign at the beginning of August, beating Admira of Austria 4-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round.
- Czech midfielder Jiri Jarosik spent two seasons with Chelsea, making enough league appearances in the 2004-05 season to earn a Premier League winner’s medal but being loaned to Birmingham City after the arrival of Michael Essien.
- Sparta Prague have tasted success in European club competition before, winning the Mitropa Cup for central European teams three times before the tournament was discontinued in 1992.
- These teams last met in the Champions League group stage in the 2003-04 season, with the sides drawing 0-0 at Stamford Bridge after the Blues won 1-0 away in Prague thanks to a goal from William Gallas (pictured).
- Chelsea have not played in this competition since the 2002-03 season, when they lost 5-4 on aggregate in the first round to Norwegian side Viking FK.
- If the Blues were to win this competition, they would have then won each European club competition in their history.
I don’t see us struggling against Sparta Prague, but they are a dangerous side at times as proved in their Europa League Group Stage Campaign.. Nonetheless, 2-1 to Chelsea.