2438: Arsenal vs Sparta Prague: Arse
by : Stephen Orford
Arsenal can book a place in the last 16 of the Champions League with victory over Sparta Prague at Highbury on Wednesday (November 2).
The Gunners recent Premiership exploits have been something of a circus, with botched penalty attempts and an away defeat to lowly West Bromwich Albion all part of the repertoire. However, they have been somewhat more convincing in Europe, and currently sit top of Group B, five points ahead of nearest challengers Ajax.
Arsene Wenger’s men saw off the threat of Sparta in Prague a fortnight ago, and there is little to suggest that a victory can not be obtained here in the return fixture. That night, Thierry Henry returned from his long injury absence to score both goals in a 2-0 win after Jose Antonio Reyes suffered a rib injury.
Once again the fitness or otherwise of the French star is the main concern for Wenger. The striker missed the 1-1 draw with Spurs at the weekend, but is hopeful of a return to action here. Henry has scored 31 times in 60 Champions League appearances, with only Raul of Real Madrid and Manchester United’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy having found the net more often in the competition. Despite recent gossip about his future lying elsewhere, Henry remains Arsenal’s key man if they are to mount a serious challenge for the European title this term.
Freddie Ljungberg is a doubt after the Swedish international limped out of the north London derby and missed training on Tuesday (November 1).
The two sides have met at Highbury before, when they were thrown together in the group stage of the 2000/01 Champions League. Arsenal won 4-2 on that occasion, and five of the Arsenal team that were involved then remain with the north London club. Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Ashley Cole, Lauren and Robert Pires all have another opportunity to play against the Czech side, with Lauren’s only Champions League goal to date having come during that previous meeting.
Martin Hasek is the sole survivor from the Sparta team that night, who have won only once before on English soil when they beat Watford 3-2 at Vicarage Road in November 1983. If that record does not inspire confidence, consider also the fact that the Czech outfit have not won any of their last 10 away matches in the Champions League. This is only one game shy of their longest ever run without a win in Europe on their travels, as they failed to gain anything from 11 consecutive trips between 1967 and 1976.
Yet more unwanted club records belong to this current Sparta team, who have failed to win any of their last nine fixtures in Europe, or their last 11 in the Champions League. The current situation seems just as dire at home for Sparta, who sit a disappointing 10th in the Czech league, 13 points behind leaders Slovan Liberec after a 2-1 defeat to Sigma Olomouc on Saturday (October 29).
Adding to their woes, Karol Kisel was stretchered off during that match with a suspected broken collar bone, and will not feature at Highbury.
At the point when a forecast is due it is difficult to see Sparta’s dismal form improving here against The Wenger Boys. The Gunners should have too much class all over the field for their opponents, and a comfortable win looks on the cards.
Verdict: Arsenal 3 Sparta Prague 1
1 November 2005