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AC Sparta Praha face a daunting start to their UEFA Champions League campaign on Tuesday night when big-spending Chelsea FC are the visitors to the Letná stadium.
Sparta reached Group G with a hard-earned 5-4 victory against FK Vardar, the champions of F.Y.R. Macedonia, in the third qualifying round, but face a completely different challenge in their English opponents.
Chelsea have spent more than €155m in the transfer market since being bought by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich earlier this summer and have completely restructured their side. Manager Claudio Ranieri has recruited the likes of Adrian Mutu, Juan Sebastián Verón, Claude Makelele, Hernán Crespo, Damien Duff, Joe Cole, Geremi, Wayne Bridge and Glen Johnson to bolster his side's challenge at home and abroad.
'We must fight'
Ranieri, however, insists money alone will not elevate Chelsea to the status of one of Europe's top sides. "Chelsea have good players but we must fight to be a team like [the other contenders]," he said. "I know the players, but they don't know each other, they haven't played with each other.
I have a lot of champions, but I do not have a team,"
The new signing who has made the most immediate impact is Romanian striker Mutu, who has scored eight times - including internationals - since signing for the English club, including two in Saturday's 4-2 league victory against Tottenham Hotspur FC. Ranieri was able to rest the likes of Crespo, Verón and Bridge for that game, while Makelele started on the substitute's bench for his new club and Geremi was suspended, but is likely to return against Sparta.
'True international class'
"The players around me here have helped me adapt quickly to football in this country, and I am very happy now to be going into the Champions League," said Mutu. "I hope I will be in the team and make a good debut. There are players here of true international class, and you can't help but play well in such good company."
In contrast, Sparta prepared for the match with a disappointing 2-0 defeat against FC Slovan Liberec on Saturday, although coach Jirí Kotrba has no injury worries for the game with Chelsea, which is expected to take place in front of a sell-out crowd in Prague.
Kotrba himself said that his side would not be inhibited by their mixed results this season. "Champions League matches and domestic league matches have nothing in common.
We have nothing to lose in the Champions League."
Sparta captain Karel Poborský is familiar with the challenge posed by English clubs, following a spell with Manchester United FC in the mid-1990s. "I am looking forward to the game against Chelsea," the midfield player said. "Chelsea are a very strong team because their new owner bought every possible quality player available and they are very attractive opponents. I know English football and I know that the teams from this country want to win by playing good football."
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