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AC Sparta Praha coach Jozef Chovanec underlined his side's determination to end their five-year exile from the UEFA Champions League group stage, but warned it would not be easy to prevail in their two-legged 'derby' with MŠK Žilina.
Speaking on the eve of Sparta's play-off first leg against the Slovakian titleholders at a sold-out Letná stadium, Chovanec said: "We played in the Champions League in the past, but now we've gone five years without it. We want be back among the best sides, but we're facing strong, well-organised opponents with some big personalities. It will be difficult."
For Chovanec, the key concern is how to cope with the absence of playmaking pair Marek Matějovský and Libor Sionko and leading scorer Bony Wilfried, all of whom are suspended. "We have more European experience [than Žilina], but on the other hand we're missing more players," said the Slovakia-born coach, who is expected to look to Štěpán Vachoušek, signed on a six-month loan from FK Teplice just hours before the UEFA deadline, to fill the gap in midfield alongside Igor Žofčák. Cameroonian Léonard Kweuke should make his first start up front.
Sparta lost 1-0 at 1. FK Příbram last Friday but have already beaten SK Liepājas Metalurgs (2-0) and KKS Lech Poznań (1-0) at home in qualifying; Žilina, who warmed up with a 1-1 domestic draw at MFK Ružomberok, failed to win either away tie in the preceding rounds at Birkirkara FC (0-1) and PFC Litex Lovech (1-1). This is an away game with a difference, however for the Slovakian side. There are four Czechs in the Žilina squad – just as there are three Slovakians in Sparta's ranks – and the visiting coach, Pavel Hapal, actually held the reins at Sparta for a brief spell a decade ago.
Hapal believes both teams will draw "big motivation" from the prize at stake, but perhaps Žilina a shade more because "by contrast with Sparta we have never played in the Champions League". For Žilina to prevail, Hapal knows they must be at their very best, however. "Playing the first game in Prague should be a small advantage for us but we all know there is only one way to guarantee success – to play at our maximum and even beyond our capabilities," he added.
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