By Trevor Haylett in London
Chelsea FC are through to the UEFA Champions League knockout stage despite being held by AC Sparta Praha, and the visiting coach who masterminded the draw still believes Claudio Ranieri's side are strong contenders to lift the trophy on 26 May 2004.
Jirí Kotrba's team showed a defensive tenaciousness in keeping their own hopes of progress alive with a precious point. If they defeat S.S. Lazio in Prague on 9 December, and Chelsea do them a favour and beat Besiktas JK, a place in the last 16 will be Sparta's. Chelsea will go through as group winners as long as they avoid defeat against their Turkish opponents.
It was a frustrating night for the home supporters, though, but Kotrba remains a fan of the side revamped at great cost in the summer. "
Chelsea have a very good team, a quality team and there were some very good players like [Marcel] Desailly and [Juan Sebastián] Verón who did not play tonight," the Sparta coach said. "I might not say they will win the trophy but they are definitely one of the contenders for the winning post."
Kotrba was happy with his team's defensive display as they strung two banks of defenders in front of goalkeeper Jaromír Blazek and challenged Chelsea to break them down. Clear-cut opportunities were thin on the ground as Chelsea looked in vain for the creativity that had taken them to a stunning 4-0 victory at Lazio on Matchday 4.
Late on two golden opportunities did emerge for Chelsea. With eight minutes remaining William Gallas, who scored the only goal when the clubs met on Matchday 1, headed the ball against the post. Even later Adrian Mutu shot uncharacteristically off target when Damien Duff sent him clear.
"I am pleased because we created four or five chances to score a goal," Ranieri said. "We tried to win and claim the three points but it is OK.
Now it is important to get a point against Besiktas and win the group." His players did find the net in the 27th minute but after seeing his initial header rebound off the bar Hernán Crespo was ruled offside with his second effort after Mutu had worked hard to win the loose ball.
"We are through so we are happy but Sparta made it hard for us and they have some excellent players," said Joe Cole, who showed nimble skills out on the left on his first Champions League start as Verón's deputy. "If we had scored an early goal it would have been different but now we will just go and try to get a result against Besiktas."
Sparta were content to sit back knowing that a draw would be a good result and leave everything hanging on the final round of matches in two weeks' time as long as tonight's game in Rome did not end in a Besiktas victory. "The good news from the game is that we have a draw and that we know we have a good defence," Kotrba added. "The not-so-good news is that we did not score and the game was not as close as we wanted it to be."
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