|Place: Letna Stadium, Prague Dated: Thursday September 30 To start up: 17:45 BST|
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Just over six months after their last visit to the Czech capital, Steven Gerrard’s Rangers return to Prague as they aim to take the opening points of their Europa League group campaign.
The Scottish champions were knocked out by Slavia Prague in the round of 16 last season, but this time against a side from Sparta who delivered 4-1 back-to-back hammer blows to rivals Celtic in the qualifying phase. groups 2020-21.
Here, BBC Scotland finds out what Rangers can expect, how they can win, and why Ondrej Kudela’s racing load is clouding the contest.
“Sparta stronger than last year”
While Rangers’ last meeting with Sparta was in a 1991 European Cup loss, Celtic were tasked with facing the Czech side at home and away last season.
Sparta traveled to Glasgow with Neil Lennon’s side after a four-game winless streak, and that was adamantly extended to five after the visitors dismantled the then Scottish champions.
The Parkhead club’s next group game was a trip to Prague, and despite a goal scored by Odsonne Edouard, Sparta inflicted the same damaging score.
However, the six points Sparta collected against Lennon’s men were the only ones they racked up in an unsuccessful attempt to advance to the knockout stage.
“Everyone linked to Sparta understands that Celtic are a much weaker opponent and have played them at their worst,” Czech writer Martin Vait told BBC Scotland. “The Rangers will be a different proposition. This is considered a 50/50.”
Last season’s top scorer Lukas Julis – who scored five of Sparta’s eight goals against Celtic – remains at the club but has had a start to the campaign due to injuries.
There has, however, been a change in the canoe. Vaclav Kotal was replaced by former Czech national team coach Pavel Vrba in February, and Vait believes Sparta is a more difficult proposition for Rangers with former Ludogorets boss at the helm.
âIf you compare this year’s Sparta with last year, I would say they’re stronger now,â he says. âVbra is a well established Czech coach. He is probably one of the best the Czech Republic has had in the past 10 years.
“He tried to instill an attacking football style in Sparta. They finished second behind Slavia and they stole the blocks this season.”
“Cancel Hlozek, you win the game”
Despite suffering elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Monaco in their third round qualification, Sparta started their league campaign with five out of six wins – scoring 16 goals in the process.
But their form has stammered in recent weeks, with a loss to Viktoria Plzen and a home draw against Jablonec – who were beaten by Celtic in the Europa League qualifiers – ending a goalless draw at Brondby in of their first group match.
The Czech team ended their three-game winless streak with a 5-2 win at Zlin on Saturday, meaning a 3-2 loss to Plzen earlier this month remains the lone domestic defeat in the league. Czech team.
And Vait thinks Gerrard can plan that to his advantage on Thursday – as long as Ibrox’s side keep “rising star” Adam Hlozek quiet.
“If you take Hlozek off and deal with what comes from behind the scenes, you’ve actually won the game,” Vait says. “David Moberg Karlsson is also very good head-to-head on the wing, but he’s not the type to go back that much.
âWhat Rangers should be concerned about is if Sparta has time on the ball. They are good at interaction and they can kill you with good combinations. Playing positively, proactively and pressing effectively is key. “
Rangers were knocked out of last season’s competition by an impressive Slavia – who also knocked out Premier League side Leicester City – on their way to the quarter-finals, while winning the Czech elite by 12 points.
However, despite the fact that they will be playing in the Conference League this season, Vait says Sparta shouldn’t be such an intimidating proposition for the Scottish side.
âRecruiting between the two teams is one of the main differences,â says Vait. âEvery Slavia player is athletic and tactically savvy, but Sparta relies heavily on their academy.
“They are great at it and you can see it now with Hlozek, but against tougher opponents they always crash. The mindset, the belief and the way the team is built is not balanced.”
“The Kudela affair still dominates the intrigues”
Slavia’s round of 16 victory at Ibrox was marred by a racist incident between defender Kudela and Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara. Kudela was suspended for 10 games after racially abusing Kamara, who was suspended for three games for assaulting the Slavia man in the tunnel.
Rangers will return to Prague for the first time since Thursday’s incident and face a Sparta side who also face a racial offense.
Only children – and the adults who supervise them – will be allowed access to the game after the club were indicted by UEFA after racial abuse was directed by supporters against Monaco’s AurÃ©lien Tchouameni last month.
“While it is not pleasant for the Sparta fans not to be at the stadium and the majority are honest people, there is friction with the Rangers that would have fueled the troubles and the problems,” he said. he declares. “There is no denying that this will help defuse the whole problem.
“The Kudela case still dominates the intrigues of many fans and citizens of the Czech Republic. It has created massive hysteria in the media and the public. It is a truly toxic incident and it is difficult to talk about it.”