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It is perhaps no surprise that ahead of the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie against Arsenal FC on Wednesday, AC Sparta Praha coach Michal Bílek singled out midfielder Tomáš Rosický as the visitors' most potent threat.
Rosický is a household name in the Czech Republic and is particularly well-regarded among Sparta supporters who were first to witness the talent of a playmaker who helped them to a fourth consecutive title after breaking into the first team in 1999/2000. The 26-year-old left for BV Borussia Dortmund in January 2001 but has remained in the national consciousness with starring roles for his country at UEFA EURO 2004™ and the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
His first season in London may have produced mixed fortunes but Bílek remains wary of the danger posed by the returning hero. "We mustn't give him any space because he is very dangerous when unmarked," said Bílek, who watched Arsenal's 2-1 Premier League victory against Fulham FC on Sunday. Not that the Sparta game plan simply involves thwarting Rosický. "We don't just want an acceptable result," the coach said. "Only a win will keep our chances alive going into the return leg, and I hope the sell-out crowd will help us."
The Czech champions will need to improve in front of goal if they are to give their supporters cause for hope – they have scored once in two 1. Liga outings this season, a 1-0 success against FC Slovan Liberec preceding the goalless draw at ten-man FC Viktoria Plzeň. Sparta also have defensive concerns after centre-back Jan Šimůnek departed for VfL Wolfsburg on Monday. Left-back Michal Kadlec will step into the middle alongside captain and West Ham United FC old boy Tomáš Řepka, who is back from suspension. Summer signing Jiří Kladrubský could make his European debut down the left.
The hosts are not alone in missing key personnel though, as Arsenal will be without the same five players who sat out Sunday's game. "We have left behind Emmanuel Adebayor, Abou Diaby, Denilson, Gilberto and Eduardo [da Silva]," confirmed manager Arsène Wenger. "Eduardo, Denilson and Diaby have small ankle problems but big enough for them not to play."
The Gunners can take heart from their spirited comeback against Fulham, when two goals in the last five minutes by Robin van Persie and Aleksandr Hleb spared the blushes of goalkeeper Jens Lehmann whose mistake had given away a first-minute goal. Arsenal can also reflect on a 100 per cent record against Sparta, against whom they have managed four wins from four, the last two coming in the 2005/06 group stage – the season Wenger's team reached the final. A good omen, perhaps.
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