Chelsea will get a chance to leave their domestic troubles behind when they travel to face Sparta Prague in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie.
It has been a hugely troubling beginning to Rafael Benitez’s life as interim manager at Stamford Bridge and there was even speculation that he was primed to be fired if they had lost to Wigan on Saturday. Chelsea came through that test and Benitez will doubtless be pleased to get his players away from the intense scrutiny at home, albeit for just a couple of days.
The Europa League will have been furthest from the Champions League holders at the start of the season, but Benitez is eager for his players to take the competition seriously.
“This is a massive city, a massive club and a massive competition,” the Spaniard said, according to Chelsea’s official website. “You cannot change things, the Champions League is a big competition but so is this, and we now have the chance to play against historic teams and do well.”
Chelsea’s aspirations to go far in the competition could well be hampered by the fact that they will have just one fit striker, Fernando Torres, at their disposal. January signing Demba Ba is cup-tied having already featured in the competition for Newcastle this season.
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“It's a problem, but we'll try to keep Fernando fit, playing well and hopefully scoring goals,” explained Benitez. “If we have to manage in a different way because we don't have him for any reason, we will have to, but Victor Moses is coming back and he's an option to play as a striker.
“The perception is that Fernando hasn't scored goals, but he already has 15. He was scoring at the beginning of the season and then again when I just arrived.”
Benitez will have captain John Terry available, although David Luiz is suspended. John Mikel Obi and Victor Moses are not expected to feature so soon after claiming the African Cup of Nations with Nigeria on Sunday.
Sparta Prague have not played a competitive match since rounding out the Europa League group stage with a 0-0 draw at Athletic Bilbao on December 6 last year. The Czech side impressively qualified for the knockout phase at the expense of last year’s beating finalists.
Their main thereat in attack is 20-year-old Czech Republic international Vaclav Kadlec, who has struck four goals in the competition so far this season. Kadlec will be trying to get past former Sparta goalkeeper Petr Cech, who will play through the pain of a broken finger. Former Chelsea man Jiri Jarosik will be missing for the home side.
Sparta Prague (probable)
D: Svejdik, Zapotocny, Jarosik, Pamic
M: Matejovsky, Holek
Kadlec, Husbaeuer, Krejci
D: Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Terry, Bertrand
M: Ramires, Lampard
Marin, Oscar, Hazard
Prediction: Sparta Prague are undefeated in their last 11 European home games and should are likely to raise their game for the visit of such high-profile opponents.
Benitez is short in central midfield, without Mikel and Luiz, meaning he may not be able to afford Frank Lampard a rest.
In poor form and forced to rely on the misfiring Torres, the Blues may not be able to come away with a win, but a score draw should still put them in the driving seat for the return at Stamford Bridge.
Sparta Prague 1-1 Chelsea
Where to watch: The Europa League round-of-32 first leg will kick-off from Stadion Letna at 1 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by the Fox Soccer Channel, with a live stream available via a free trial to Fox Soccer 2Go.