Coach Jirí Kotrba said AC Sparta Praha have "nothing to lose" against holders AC Milan.
By Kevin Ashby in Prague
When AC Sparta Praha last advanced from the UEFA Champions League group stage two seasons ago, their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals were dashed by the mid-winter sale of six players. Although the exit door at the Letná stadium has continued to revolve in recent months, coach Jirí Kotrba remains hopeful that Sparta can prosper against a side he rates as "the best in the world" - AC Milan.
"This is probably the most important game of my career," said Kotrba ahead of the first leg of the Czech champions' knockout tie against the holders, a match for which Sparta preparation has been thorough. "We have watched every Milan game since the draw and have made detailed reports on all their players. We will be giving them to our players to read in bed instead of books."
When the studying is complete, Kotrba will perhaps sleep sounder in the knowledge that Jon Dahl Tomasson and Alessandro Nesta are unavailable having collected injuries in Milan's pulsating weekend victory against FC Internazionale. Filippo Inzaghi could step in alongside Andriy Shevchenko if fit while Alessandro Costacurta is Nesta's likely deputy. Cafu faces a late fitness test.
Sparta have no injury concerns, although their squad is much changed following the departure of seven players who appeared in the group stage including Libor Sionko and Marek Kincl, scorer of the dramatic 93rd-minute winner against S.S. Lazio which sent Sparta through. Kotrba has recruited wisely, not least with the acquisition of Jirí Štajner from Hannover 96.
The 27-year-old made an immediate impression, scoring as Sparta resumed after the winter break with a 4-3 defeat of SFC Opava and registering in the Czech Republic's 2-2 draw against Italy. Another who appeared in Palermo, Tomás Hübschman, was suspended as Sparta failed to build on that victory by drawing 0-0 against Marila Príbram on Saturday. The central defender will return along with Petr Johana and striker Igor Glušcevic against Milan.
Need to relax
"Milan are the favourites," said Kotrba. "However, as no one is expecting a miracle we can afford to be relaxed and play our own game - we have nothing to lose. We need to be compact in defence and avoid committing fouls near the area as Milan have players who are extremely effective at free-kicks."
The Rossoneri lead Serie A by five points from AS Roma having won seven and drawn one of their eight league matches this year, a streak capped by Saturday's magnificent comeback against Inter. "It was a performance and result which I will treasure for a long time," said Shevchenko. "It proves the collective spirit and strength of this Milan side."
Not everyone has been impressed by Milan's electric form. Club president Silvio Berlusconi was critical of Carlo Ancelotti for fielding Shevchenko as a lone striker before Tomasson was introduced to great effect. "We cannot take to the field with a formation which renounces half of our attacking power," Berlusconi said. "So every coach of Milan from Monday onwards will be obliged to field two strikers, otherwise he can give up."
Whatever Ancelotti's feelings on the subject, he was in jocular mood on Monday. "I had hoped that news had not made it to Prague," said the Milan coach, before turning to more serious matters: "Sparta are well organised, have a dynamic midfield and have eliminated some important clubs. As it is only the first match so we should not be afraid to play defensively." A tight game is in prospect.