Slavia must sometimes feel like the Czech capital's poor relations. While AC Sparta Praha prepare for their sixth shot at the Champions League proper, Slavia are still awaiting their debut at this lucrative level. What's more, they have been in temporary residence at the Strahov national stadium since 2000, when they left their now derelict Eden ground.
Slavia looked set for the group stage in 1996 after securing their first championship for 49 years. However, that summer Karel Poborský and Vladimír Šmicer impressed at EURO '96™ and moved abroad, and a depleted Slavia squad lost 6-0 on aggregate to Grasshopper-Club in the qualifying round.
They came closer four years later, winning 1-0 at FC Shakhtar Donetsk in the first leg of their third qualifying round tie and keeping the scores blank until the last minute at home. However, Shakhtar then breached the Slavia defence, and struck the winner in extra time. Current Slavia coach Karel Jarolím watched from the bench as assistant that day.
Slavia lost both qualifying legs against Panathinaikos FC 1-0 the following season before a creditable effort against RC Celta de Vigo in 2003. After a 3-0 defeat in Spain they scored twice in the first half-hour of the home return, but could not find a crucial third.
The current squad have less experience than their forerunners as, in an echo of 1996, some big names left the Czech runners-up in the summer. Radek Bejbl joined SK Rapid Wien and Pavel Kuka retired to become general manager of FK Marila Príbram, taking gifted playmaker Václav Koloušek - who overcame leukaemia last term - with him.
So it was with several untried players that Slavia went to Brussels a fortnight ago. One of them, 17-year-old midfielder Marek Suchý, set up Lukáš Jarolím - back at Slavia after eight seasons - to score the vital away goal. Lukáš's father Karel is cautious, though. "We have a chance at home, but the return will be very tough," said the coach. "Anderlecht are very strong in attack."
The trainer has no internationals to call on and only playmaker Karel Piták is currently in Czech Republic coach Karel Brückner's thoughts. Eight new players arrived in the close season, with Jarolím Jr from 1. FC Slovácko being joined by Tomáš Pešír (Kayserispor) and Dušan Švento (MFK Ružomberok) among others.
As in 1996, the group are yet to gel fully, but the signs are promising. Having taken one point from their first two league games, a late reshuffle at the weekend allowed Slavia to overturn a 2-0 deficit against FK Jablonec 97 and win with three goals in the final 15 minutes.
"That comeback could help us mentally for Wednesday," said Jarolím. But Matej Krajcík, Saturday's star performer, scoring one and providing another, cannot play against Anderlecht as he was not registered in time. He will hope to be in contention when the group stage starts. With a €1m bonus on offer to the squad if they qualify, he will not be the only player dreaming of leading Slavia to the promised land at the fifth attempt.
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