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Hrebík still smiling at Sparta

AC Sparta Praha coach Jaroslav Hrebík has endured a tough time since taking charge but he hopes success in Europe will win over the critics.

Mounting pressure
The ill will has also carried into Sparta's Champions League campaign, with chants of "Hrebík out!" a recurring feature of last Wednesday's 1-1 Group B home draw with AFC Ajax. Temporarily silenced by Miroslav Matušovič's spectacular 66th-minute opener, the calls for Hrebík's head resumed with Wesley Sneijder's added-time equaliser. Just in case the coach did not get the message, supporters carried a large banner featuring a likeness of Straka - a charismatic and popular former player - with the words "I will return" emerging from his lips.

Putting things right
Despite the animosity, Hrebík is committed to putting things right. "It's not very nice when you hear a group of fans constantly shouting against you," he said, "but I need to focus on the team and the players. My job is to guide the team to the best possible results".

Former hero
The best way to win over the doubters, he believes, would be a repeat of the 2001/02 Champions League campaign, during Hrebík's first spell in charge. Playing an aggressive pressing game, Hrebík's unfancied side finished second in their pool to reach the second group stage. "The fans were chanting my name and I was a hero to them," Hrebík recalled. "Maybe we need to do the trick again so I can get the fans back onside."

European pedigree
Hrebík's Champions League pedigree was the main reason Sparta's owners opted to sack Straka and bring his more defensive-minded predecessor back to Letná. Despite Sparta being nine points clear of the pack in the Gambrinus Liga, Straka's team had a dismal Champions League challenge, the final straw coming when a below-strength Olympique Lyonnais humbled them 5-0.

Rebuilding process
Hrebík, who trained as a construction engineer and co-owns a building company, must quickly complete a major rebuilding job if Sparta are to rediscover the form of four years ago. The key difference between the 2001/02 squad and the current one, he said, is stability. "The team had been together for a while. We had very few injuries so we could play with the same lineup and our teamwork was good. Right now, we're rebuilding the side and it'll take time before the players get used to each other."

History repeating?
Time, however, could be running out. Hrebík was sacked in 2002 because of poor league results, in spite of his Champions League success, and faces the prospect of history repeating itself. Three days after the Ajax match, Sparta slumped to their second seasonal league defeat, 2-0 at 1. FC Slovácko. Sparta - a club where domestic glory is almost taken for granted - have just four points from the last four league games.

'We need to cope'
Tackling both the league and the Champions League with a relatively small squad is an obvious disadvantage, but Hrebík refuses to use it as an excuse. "We need to cope with that," he insisted. "We can't afford to have two equally good players for every position, but we do have more than just eleven good players."

Still hope
Even with limited resources and discontent on the terraces, Hrebík remains hopeful he can turn things around. "Last year, Sparta had a very poor campaign in the Champions League," Hrebík said. "We hope we can improve Sparta's image in Europe this time. We'll do our best to qualify for the next round."