The Czech Republic is poised for drama this weekend as title-pretenders FC Slovan Liberec host champions AC Sparta Praha.
Slovan and Sparta represent Czech hopes of success in European competition this season but domestic supremacy will be the only thing on their minds when they meet at the U Nisy stadium on Saturday.
Sparta blow away the cobwebs
When the Czech 1.liga resumed last weekend after the winter break, leaders Sparta showed no sign of rustiness as they breezed past SK Hradec Králóve at the Letná stadium. Libor Sionko dispatched Marek Kincl's cross after just two minutes for the opening goal before Tomáš Cizek cut in from the right to make it 2-0 midway through the first half. Jiri Jarošik missed a penalty for Sparta on the stroke of half-time but the UEFA Champions League challengers could afford to be generous as they maintained their advantage at the summit.
Tricky task for Slovan
Slovan enjoyed a less comfortable return from their winter hiatus, but they kept their title hopes alive with a 2-1 victory at FK Chmel Blšany. The three points kept them within seven points of Sparta but defeat this weekend is unthinkable if they are to have any realistic hope of usurping the champions from their throne.
If their adventure in the UEFA Cup this season is anything to go by, however, fear is not a word that features in Slovan's dictionary. They travel to France to tackle Olympique Lyonnais in the first leg of their fourth-round tie aiming for another scalp from one of Europe's glamour leagues after eliminating Spanish challengers RCD Mallorca and RC Celta de Vigo in previous rounds.
Champions League triumph
Sparta have been no slouches in Europe either, progressing along with FC Bayern München from a UEFA Champions League first group stage section that also featured Feyenoord and FC Spartak Moscow. They are also well positioned in their current group after beating FC Porto 1-0 away last time out to preserve a superb unbeaten run away from home in the competition. Four points from their forthcoming double-header with Panathinaikos FC would go a long way towards securing a coveted quarter-final berth.
Five-point gap beckons
But it is the defence of Sparta's Czech title which is of immediate concern to coach Jaroslav Hrebík. The capital club will open up a five-point advantage at the summit if they account for Slovan, but defeat could see FK Viktoria Zizkov steal top spot if they win their tricky away tie at seventh-placed FC Brno on Sunday. Third-placed CU Bohemians Praha are also in contention but it is Slovan who could be the team to watch.
Form favours Slovan
They have charged up the table after winning their last five league fixtures, making them one of European football's in-form teams. Although they will not be short on confidence, they are boosted by the fact that they have already proved more than a match for Sparta on one occasion this term. When the sides met at the Letná in August, Vaclav Kolousek scored both goals in a 2-1 victory. A similar result would do nicely for Slovan on Saturday.
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