MŠK Žilina are on the verge of a first appearance in the UEFA Champions League group stage as second-half goals from Momodou Ceesay and Tomáš Oravec earned a famous win at AC Sparta Praha.
Sparta started the first leg of the play-off tie strongly as they sought a first group-stage appearance since 2005/06 yet a defence that had kept clean sheets in their first four fixtures in this season's competition always looked vulnerable. Ceesay eventually capitalised with a composed finish early in the second period and Žilina's continued endeavour brought more reward 17 minutes from time, Oravec heading them into a two-goal lead to put Pavel Hapal's team in control ahead of next week's return in Slovakia.
Sparta were without midfielders Libor Sionko and Marek Matějovský and striker Wilfried Bony through suspension, yet the home side made light of those absences to seize the early initiative. Jozef Piaček's header just past his own post characterised the pressure on the Žilina rearguard, which was bisected in the 12th minute by Štěpán Vachoušek's pass from deep that set Leony Kweuke clear, but the striker's low shot was blocked by the left leg of Martin Dúbravka.
Two minutes later the visitors came closer still to breaking the deadlock as Róbert Jež unleashed a 25-metre free-kick, only a combination of the fingertips of Jaromír Blažek and the left-hand upright keeping the scoresheet blank. The Sparta goalkeeper was exposed again moments later when Oravec rose unmarked, yet the Žilina striker failed to muster enough power on his header.
In general, however, both teams were adopting a safety-first approach until the game was thrown wide open six minutes into the second period when Žilina snatched the lead. Blažek failed to gather a long throw after a breakdown in communication with Niklas Hoheneder, leaving Ceesay to collect the loose ball, skip past Igor Žofčák and drill a shot in off the far post from an acute angle.
The Gambian striker swiftly threatened again, leaving three defenders trailing in his wake before shooting just wide and, after Juraj Kucka's free-kick had spun narrowly wide off Mário Pečalka, wreaked more havoc on the Sparta back line. Ceesay glided past three defenders to bear down on Blažek, yet opted to try to find Issiaka Bello and the chance was lost. Sparta's reprieve was brief; Oravec rose unmarked at the near post to nod in Patrik Mráz's inswinging right-wing corner and leave Sparta with it all to do in Zilina next Wednesday.