By Ben Lyttleton
AC Sparta Praha are hoping to twist the knife into faltering Manchester United FC on their UEFA Champions League trip to Old Trafford on Wednesday.
A morale-boosting 2-0 win over second-placed SK Sigma Olomouc - which has moved Frantisek Stráka's side six points clear at the top of the Czech league - followed their impressive 0-0 draw with Sir Alex Ferguson's side on Matchday 3. United, meanwhile, slipped up against Portsmouth FC in the Premiership one week after beating Arsenal FC, their arch-rivals and reigning champions.
Defender Radoslav Kovác said: "We have picked up some very good victories in the last few games, including against our rivals [SK] Slavia [Praha]. The win over Sigma at the weekend has given us the perfect boost we need before we face United."
Sparta, who have only conceded one goal in their last four league games, won their first points in Group D after drawing 0-0 with the English giants in Prague. "If someone had told us before the match that we would draw, we would have been delighted," said Kovác. "We were pleased with that but with more luck we could even have won the game. Still, the result gets us back in contention and now we have a chance of finishing third in the group."
Sparta became the first team for two years to keep a clean sheet against United in this competition and are set to field the same 4-5-1 formation at Old Trafford. Kovác said: "We were all pleased to stop them scoring. It was a very tough match. But this match should be different from the first one: we will expect huge attacking pressure from the home side. We will try to surprise them and get a good result. All of us will be putting in 100 per cent effort."
'One of the best'
Kovác has pinpointed Ruud van Nistelrooij as United's main threat. The Dutch striker was suspended for their weekend defeat at Portsmouth but is available on Wednesday night. For Kovác, Van Nistelrooij is likely to be more dangerous than England forward Wayne Rooney. "Rooney is an excellent striker but Van Nistelrooy is more of a threat to us," he said. "Without doubt, he is one of the best forwards I have ever played against."
Kovác will be one of the players charged with stopping Van Nistelrooij. The 25-year-old started the season as a defensive midfield player but has moved into central defence after Petr Johana was ruled out through injury and his deputies Jirí Koubský and Radek Hochmeister failed to convince.
His performances have since earned him a call-up to the senior Czech Republic squad. "I used to say that I would rather play in midfield but I am now used to being in defence," he said. "It's fair to say we have been defending well lately and we haven't conceded many goals. I hope that run continues at Old Trafford."
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