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AC Sparta Praha coach Jaroslav Hrebík hopes his team can shrug off indifferent league form and repeat the UEFA Champions League success he enjoyed during his first spell at the Czech club.
Design for success
Under Hrebík's guidance, the Czech champions, who begin their Group B campaign at home to AFC Ajax on Wednesday night, reached the second group stage of the 2001/02 competition. But Sparta have made a disappointing start to their domestic campaign, dropping five points from an available 15. Hrebík remains confident, though. "Sparta are geared to win tomorrow," he said. "Our tactics will be designed for success."
Youth and inexperience
Sparta midfielder Tomáš Sivok, who made his international debut in the Czech Republic's recent 2-0 defeat by Romania, says his side's relative youth and inexperience could act in their favour against the Dutch club. "We have a number of new players who are looking forward to playing in the Champions League and there's a lot of commitment on their part and on the whole team's part." Sivok adds that he and his team-mates have a point to prove following their run of mixed league results. "We want to repair the reputation we've damaged in the league," he said.
Meanwhile, Ajax coach Danny Blind, who captained the Amsterdam outfit to Champions League glory in 1995, downplayed Sparta's domestic difficulties. "It's a special game - a Champions League game," he said. "That could give Sparta extra strength." And Blind is well aware of Sparta's strength: "Our goal is to win this match, but we know it will be tough because Sparta have a good defence and good players in attack like Karel Poborský and Lukáš Zelenka."
Zelenka starred for Sparta on Saturday, scoring twice in a 2-0 win against promoted FC Vysocina Jihlava, but Poborský began on the bench, appearing as a 56th-minute substitute. The 33-year-old winger, struggling to maintain the magic touch of previous campaigns, was rested rather than dropped. Hrebík said: "I didn't want Karel to play the whole game. But rather than substitute him after playing him from the off, I thought it'd be better to put him on after 60 or 70 minutes."
Ajax, for their part, bounced back from their first seasonal defeat, a 2-1 loss to title rivals Feyenoord, with a convincing 2-0 victory at Willem II. The result, which took Blind's men to sixth place in the Eredivisie, was set up by Czech Republic captain Tomáš Galásek, who scored Ajax's first goal. According to Blind, there's a "big possibility" that the defensive midfielder, out of favour as the campaign began, will start against Sparta. "Galásek is still an important player," he explained. "That's what I told him, and why I don't want to let him go."
But Ajax skipper Julien Escudé is set to miss out with a back complaint. The defender is the latest addition to an injury list including goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, defenders Maxwell and Juanfran, and forwards Edgar Manucharyan and Nicolae Mitea. For Sparta, meanwhile, defender Adam Petrouš and veteran midfielder Martin Hašek face late fitness tests.
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