Success in Europe was a long time arriving for Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea. The Champions League trophy had teased and flirted with the club with all manner of cruel and false promises before finally succumbing on an evening when according to Gary Neville, Drogba’s zenith had been “written in the stars.” From when he purchased the club in 2003, it had been ten years until the Russian realised the dream of seeing his team lift the continent’s premier club trophy. For a man with a reputation for impatience, it perhaps demonstrated admirable restraint. But patience is a virtue they say. Probably the same people say that virtue is its own reward as well. So there you go.
Whilst in the intervening period, statistically the Blues secured as many trophies as Sir Alex Ferguson’s supposedly all-conquering Manchester United, it’s probably not straining credibility too far to say that the rest of the trophies combined may not have meant as much to Abramovich as the pot with the big ears landed against Bayern Munich in their own back yard. “Our city. Our stadium. Our trophy.” Hmmm, it was difficult to hide a feeling of schadenfreude – ironically perhaps.
The legend goes that the oligarch was taken to the Manchester United against Real Madrid game at Old Trafford a good few years ago, when the Reds beat los Blancos 4-3 in a Champions League game. Apparently, he was entranced by the passion and glory. There and then, he decided to buy a club and make it a major European force – defined by success. One can only wonder therefore how he views the fact the the warm glow from that balmy Bavarian evening, less than twelve months ago, proved to be all too fleeting. His club are now forced to potter around Europe’s backwater clubs in pursuit of a trophy that will carry little cache, and in Premier League games Blues’ fans that rejoiced in lauding their team as “Champions of Europe” are now assailed with the dreaded “Thursday night, Channel Five” mockery. Where now is the passion and glory? The fall from grace can hardly be the stuff of a billionaire’s dream.
So as Chelsea ‘look forward’ to a home leg in the Europa League against Sparta Prague, that should already be won, the question is what are the priorities for the remainder of the season? Would the club rather win win the FA Cup and finish fifth, win the Europa League and finish fifth, win both and finish fifth, or win nothing and finish fourth? Now, I know this isn’t a decision that is actually in their hands, but I think you probably see what I’m getting at. Anything but a qualification for next year’s Champions’ League will spell all kinds of disaster for the club.
So, let’s not be surprised if Chelsea follow the trend of many Premier League clubs, and bail on the Europa League, playing fringe players and youngsters, until an inevitable elimination comes their way. The FA Cup, with a tie away at Manchester United awaiting if they circumvent a tricky Middlebrough game, may well be out of reach. So, potentially, with both cup campaigns terminated, at least that way, all ‘distractions’ are gone. It’s not really passion and glory, but at least Chelsea can then concentrate on the really important matter, as they fall back on the old faithful cold comfort of ‘concentrating on the league.’
Chelsea were not at their best during the opening leg of this tie in the Czech Republic last week, but a strike from Brazilian midfielder Oscar saw the Blues claim an away goal and a 1-0 victory.
With that advantage in mind, interim manager Rafael Benitez has been tipped to make a handful of changes to his lineup.
That could mean that Marko Marin and Ryan Bertrand are both given starting roles at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea can also boast good from at home in European competitions of late, having been unbeaten in the last nine outings at the Bridge. The last team to win in West London in a UEFA tournament was Manchester United back in 2011.
Meanwhile, Sparta have won in England since they overcome Watford back in 1983 – a run that dates back six matches.
Having started the first meeting on the bench, former West Bromwich Albion and Blackpool striker Roman Bednar could be drafted into the starting lineup this time around.
Projected Lineups :
Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill, Bertrand
Marin, Mata, Oscar
Zapotocny, Hybs, Svejdik, Pamic
Vacha, Matejovsky, Jarosik, Husbauer, Krejci
Key Stats :
- The first leg of this tie was Chelsea’s first game in this competition since the 2002-03 season.
- Brazilian Oscar (pictured) was on the pitch for less than a minute before he scored the winning goal in the first leg last week.
- Before the first-leg clash, these teams last met in the group stage of the 2003-04 Champions League, with the Blues taking four points from the two games.
- Sparta Prague have never won a major club competition organised by Uefa.
- Sparta captain Marek Matejovsky spent two seasons with Reading in the Premier League, making 51 appearances for the Royals and scoring twice.
- The club’s most famous run in a European competition came in the first ever Champions League in the 1991-92 season, when they defeated Rangers and Marseille to reach the semi-final stage.
2-0 to Chelsea.