By Kevin Ashby at the Letná stadium
A combination of meagre finishing and superb defending ensured the first leg of the UEFA Champions League first knockout round tie between AC Sparta Praha and AC Milan finished goalless, leaving everything to play for at the San Siro in two weeks' time.
Perhaps mindful of president Silvio Berlusconi's warning that Milan should always take to the field with two strikers, Carlo Ancelotti, without the injured Jon Dahl Tomasson, paired the fit-again Filippo Inzaghi with Andriy Shevchenko. Taking the place of another victim of Saturday's 3-2 defeat of FC Internazionale, Alessandro Nesta, was Alessandro Costacurta while Cafu passed a fitness test. Sparta lined up as expected, with recent recruit Jirí Štajner the only change to a side which beat S.S. Lazio in their last European outing.
Both Ancelotti and Jirí Kotrba had predicted a tight game, yet the early exchanges were open as the two sides looked to seize the initiative. Shevchenko and Clarence Seedorf, scorer of the derby winner, combined neatly but the ball would not sit for the Ukrainian and from the clearance Sparta launched an attack which resulted in Milan goalkeeper Dida uncomfortably turning a Štajner drive away for a corner at his near post.
Sparta right-back Pavel Pergl drilled an eighth-minute shot narrowly wide and Dida was kept busy by a Karel Poborský shot which perhaps deserved more than to whistle into the goalkeeper's midriff. Inzaghi posed a threat at the other end, and in the 19th minute was played in by Kaká's delicious chip. Although the Italy striker wriggled clear of Petr Johana, Jaromír Blazek was rewarded for his bravery as he blocked Inzaghi's goalbound effort.
The tempo of the game then dropped, giving a capacity crowd at a freezing Letná little excitement from which to enliven stiffening limbs. Inzaghi had a sniff of an opening in the 32nd minute after Shevchenko cleverly dummied Seedorf's pass into his path, only for the ball to be scooped up by the alert Blazek. A frustrating half for Inzaghi ended with Johana exquisitely timing a tackle when the striker threatened to race clear from another Kaká pass.
Lukáš Zelenka, mop-haired and diminutive, drew the first save of the half from Dida as Sparta rallied following the break. Igor Glušcevic, a willing runner alongside Štajner during the first half but often snuffed out by Paolo Maldini, thought he had opened the scoring in the 52nd minute after poking in a low reverse pass. One look behind him, where a wall of white shirts were standing with arms raised, curtailed the tall striker's celebrations.
Spurred by that close call, Milan were suddenly more urgent in pushing play forward. Shevchenko almost profited immediately, in the 57th minute, only for Blazek to deny him with another smart close-range save reminiscent of his earlier one from Inzaghi. The Sparta custodian was then equal to a Shevchenko volley on the hour before the Ukrainian sliced a shot when well placed - a lacklustre finish indicative of those before it.
As if to illustrate that it was not Shevchenko's night, Blazek somehow turned his header from Andrea Pirlo's free-kick wide. The offside flag then spared his blushes when Milan's No7 contrived to clip the ball over from five metres. When Dida saved well from Shevchenko's opposite number, Zelenka, in the 84th minute a goalless draw seemed inevitable.
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