AC Sparta Praha will need to shake off the cobwebs without a moment's delay when they return from their winter break on Thursday. With UEFA Champions League holders Chelsea FC due in town for the opening leg of the teams' UEFA Europa League round of 32 tie, the Czech club's first competitive outing of 2013 could hardly be a more daunting occasion.
"Our coach [Vítězslav Lavička] keeps reminding us that we're preparing for a big game," midfielder Ladislav Krejčí told UEFA.com, his side having not contested a meaningful encounter since their 0-0 group stage draw at Athletic Club on 6 December. "This has helped our motivation in training, as we've known we've had to take that extra step or run even faster.
"Everybody is taking this match as a reward for our performances in the group stage," continued the 20-year-old Czech international. "It is a tremendous match, but that doesn't mean we don't want to get a good result. Like every footballer, I've dreamt of playing in a game like this against such a big club – I just couldn't imagine it would come so soon."
Krejčí will not be overwhelmed, however, having enjoyed another landmark moment last Wednesday when he scored his first goal for the Czech Republic in only his second appearance during a 2-0 friendly win against Turkey.
Indeed, although he admits to admiring Chelsea's midfield – "[Frank] Lampard, [Eden] Hazard, [Juan] Mata or [John] Obi Mikel" – and cites Petr Čech as "one of the best keepers in the world", he is confident he and his team-mates will treat the tie as any other. "I feel respect towards the big names, but that will be gone once the referees first blows his whistle. We will fully concentrate on our performance."
Sparta's young goalkeeper Tomáš Vaclík is likewise excited by the challenge, in spite of the talent at Chelsea manager Rafael Benítez's disposal. "Of course I saw Lampard's goal for England [against Brazil] and Mata's beautiful goal [against Newcastle United FC] in the league," he said. "But we will be as well-prepared as we are for any other game. I'm looking forward to standing next to all those stars in the tunnel beforehand and enjoying the feeling."
The Londoners have managed just one victory in their last five outings in all competitions, but Vaclík feels it would be a mistake to take the European champions lightly. "Even if Chelsea are not having their best period right now, they have the winning mentality of a big club and self-confidence," he said. "To succeed, we'll have to play our best football."
They are likely to need to find a way past Čech as well, the former Sparta goalkeeper having returned from a broken finger in Saturday's 4-1 defeat of Wigan Athletic FC. For Vaclík, capped once by his country, it is a prospect he is relishing. "He's a world-class goalkeeper," said the 23-year-old. "I hope we can play against him and I hope he can come back to face his former club, which he left for great things."
Despite the pedigree of the English side, Sparta have their own reasons for optimism. For a start, they are unbeaten in 11 European home games since a 2-0 loss to MŠK Žilina in the 2010/11 UEFA Europa League play-offs. "I believe we will add one more match to that run and travel to London with a result that keeps our chances alive," said Vaclík.
The No31 is also counting on rousing support from the Stadion Letná faithful. "Our home game is sold out, and 3,000 of our fans will travel with us to the second leg. We appreciate that a lot and I hope all our fans will be proud of us after both games."
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