AC Sparta Praha and Athletic Club have hardly set the world alight this term, but both are aiming to ignite their seasons when they meet in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday.
The sides began the campaign harbouring great expectations yet have struggled to meet them in similar measure; far from galloping towards their Group I meeting they both arrive limping after derby defeats. Sparta are smarting from Saturday's 1-0 loss at SK Slavia Praha, their fourth successive reverse. Athletic have fared only slightly better, drawing three in a row before going down 2-0 at Real Sociedad de Fútbol.
European competition, though, offers respite, and Sparta coach Vítězslav Lavička says he has witnessed a change in mindset among his players. "In training on Tuesday I got the feeling the disappointment was receding, with attention switching to the big Europa League game," he said. "We want to rediscover the style that brought us results in qualifying against Admira [Wacker Mödling] and Feyenoord; dynamic football. We do not want to sit back in defence and wait for our chances."
Lavička is hopeful Marek Matějovský and Vlastimil Vidlička will shake off knocks to take their places, but this fixture comes too soon for Athletic's Ander Herrera after a groin problem. He therefore misses the chance to reunite with good friend Jiří Jarošík, a former team-mate at Real Zaragoza. The Sparta defender, who claimed a win, a draw and a defeat against Athletic during an 18-month spell in Spain, is eager to improve on his record.
"We have lost four straight games but Thursday is another day," said Jarošík, 34, whose side went down 2-1 at Olympique Lyonnais on matchday one. "It will be a tremendous game, the like of which hasn't been seen here for a while. And it's high time we ended our winless run. We were all watching Athletic last season because they were playing simply wonderful football, but we know they're not in a very comfortable position right now. They will be keen to repair things, but that's our aim too."
Athletic were surprisingly held 1-1 at home by Hapoel Kiryat Shmona FC a fortnight ago, and coach Marcelo Bielsa is far from complacent about the size of the task in Prague. "Sparta play hard, physical football, are dangerous in attack, and it will not be easy," he said. "I think we have a stronger team than last season, even if results have suggested otherwise. My own expectations for the campaign are not being fulfilled, but we know what we need to improve." So, it seems, do Lavička and Sparta.