Sparta Prague vs Liverpool FC

Nothing could have been worth the long wait Kenny Dalglish was forced to endure before taking charge of Liverpool in Europe. But the Anfield manager will be a content figure this morning as his current charges maintained their unbeaten Europe League this season. An instantly forgettable goalless draw at Sparta Prague was not the most ideal way to represent a landmark moment in Dalglish’s career. The Scot, though, will know his team are now firmly in the box seat to reach the last 16 when the second leg takes place at Anfield next Thursday.


This was a typical Liverpool away European performance, the likes of which have been passed down through the Anfield managers and which Dalglish the player will remember well. With first leg ties in Europe traditionally cagey affairs, there was only a remote chance the game could live up to the £145 ticket price Sparta were asking of some Liverpool supporters. However, those who made the trip east might have expected a bit more excitement from what in truth was a dismal spectacle. A fifth clean sheet in six games was the one real positive for the visitors from what was a game of containment. Some 9,394 days after filling the vacant Anfield hotseat in the wake of the Heysel disaster, Dalglish was in the Liverpool dugout in European competition for the first time last night.

Speaking before the game, the Scot admitted any pride from that achievement was hugely diluted by the regret of the tragedy that saw the club banned from Europe for six years, their return coming after Dalglish had resigned from his initial spell in charge back in February 1991. The Liverpool manager, though, is intent on writing a new chapter in Anfield history, having been handed the reins from Roy Hodgson last month until the end of the season. Dalglish’s predecessor avoided defeat in 10 Europa League games before Christmas, a run that earned qualification to the knockout stages with a game to spare.

Sparta were unbeaten domestically last season on the way to winning the Czech championship, but had already lost four of 14 home games in all competitions this time around before last night. Their plans for the second half of the campaign have been disrupted by the sale of leading scorer Bony Wilfried and midfielder Juraj Kucka during the January transfer window. Hodgson had used the competition to give fringe players and youngsters an opportunity, but Dalglish was taking no chances on his European bow by naming a strong starting line-up. It meant no place on the bench for 16-year-old boy wonder Raheem Sterling, with under-18s captain Conor Coady, 17, the only one of the five youngsters on the trip to Prague to be named among the substitutes. There was, however, a fourth Liverpool start for teenage defender Danny Wilson, the Scotland international part of a four-man defence that saw Jamie Carragher make his 200th cup appearance for the club.

Despite having not played a competitive game in more than two months, Sparta had the better of the opening exchanges to warm their supporters on a chilly night at the near-capacity Stadion Letna. After signalling their intent with a 25-yard drive that drifted just wide from Marek Matejovsky – who scored a fine goal for Reading at Anfield back in 2009 – Sparta fashioned the first real chance on 18 minutes. A clever pass from Cameroonian midfielder Martin Abena Biholong sent Manuel Pamic in behind Glen Johnson, with the left-back’s angled drive beaten out by Pepe Reina. Johnson, enjoying an outing in his preferred right-back slot, was kept busy by a Sparta side keen to mine the flanks. But it was from the other wing that the hosts twice came close inside 60 seconds. In the 35th minute, Reina flapped at a cross from right-back Ondrej Kusnir and Pamic hooked the loose ball over the bar.

With Cole seeing plenty of the ball, Liverpool at least cut down on the basic errors after the break and dominated possession without ever seriously threatening to test Sparta goalkeeper Jaromir Blazek. Indeed, it was a rare home foray that ended with the second half’s first chance when Kamil Vacek’s early cross from the right was headed wide by Leony Kweuke from 12 yards. Liverpool found a hole in their defence on 70 minutes, when a decent passing move ended with Lucas Leiva finding Johnson on the right with the defender advancing into the box but seeing his clipped effort float just wide of the far post. Having been out of competitive action for so long, Sparta might have been expected to tire during the closing stages.

But they finished the stronger, Kweuke drawing a save from Reina with a shot on the turn following a corner, Matejovsky swerving an effort wide from 25 yards and Vacek going close from similar distance.

posted by Jakub Krustky