By Sam Beckwith at Letná stadium
AC Sparta Praha captain Karel Poborský passed a late fitness test and helped his team to the first point of their UEFA Champions League campaign. But despite failing to create a goal in the enthralling Group D contest against Manchester United FC, the speedy winger was a constant threat to his former club throughout.
Sir Alex Ferguson made seven changes to the team that drew with Birmingham City FC on Saturday while AC Sparta Praha coach František Straka, perhaps wary of United's attacking strength, strayed from his usual 4-4-2 formation, bringing in midfield player Petr Vorišek in place of Tomáš Jun's regular strike partner, Milan Pacanda. Poborský also made the lineup, despite aggravating his calf injury during the domestic derby against SK Slavia Praha at the weekend.
Sparta showed few signs of being intimidated by their illustrious opponents, enjoying the best of a lively first half. Indeed, within the first couple of minutes, midfield player Lukáš Zelenka thought he might have earned the Czech side a penalty. Instead a free-kick was awarded just outside the area and Aleš Urbánek succeeded only in blasting it against the wall. But with Poborský and wing-back Pavel Pergl causing United problems on their left flank, the visitors had to remain on their guard.
Another Sparta penalty appeal was turned away after 17 minutes when Jun thought he had been brought down in the area after latching on to another well-timed Poborský ball. Referee Massimo De Santis had no hesitation in awarding just a corner but chances continued to fall for the home side, notably when a darting run from Zelenka into the United penalty area after 25 minutes ended with the central midfielder shooting just wide of United keeper Roy Carroll's far post.
United began to gain a foothold shortly after the half-hour mark, winning a string of free-kicks around the edge of the Sparta penalty area, largely thanks to the pace and power of Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooij. The former watched his 40th-minute effort fly narrowly wide of Sparta goalkeeper Jaromír Blazek's goal, giving Sparta their closest call to date. Left wing-back Gabriel Heinze then collected a stray ball in the Sparta defence to set up the 18-year-old sensation for another near miss.
At the other end Poborský came even closer for Sparta a minute before the break, the United old boy forcing a full-stretch save from Carroll, and Sparta threatened again from the resulting corner, in-form defender Jírí Homola clipping the crossbar with a header.
The second half began at an even more frenetic pace than the first, a pulsating opening providing chances at both ends. As the game progressed United began to look like more of a threat, with Gary Neville's sweeping diagonal balls in particular causing problems in Sparta's defence. The home side had become the counterattacking team and a great chance was squandered by Poborský on 72 minutes.
At the other end a clear-cut opening proved elusive for United despite the visitors dominating possession. Anxious to regain Sparta's cutting edge in the final 15 minutes, Straka replaced the flagging Jun with Michal Meduna while Sir Alex took off Rooney and Ryan Giggs and introduced Louis Saha and Cristiano Ronaldo. But while the introduction of fresh legs worked more in United's favour, the visitors were unable to snatch a late winner.