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Why Lazio should fear dark horses Sparta Praha

Unbeaten in the UEFA Europa League this season, Sparta are coming into their round of 16 tie with Lazio in daunting form, according to UEFA.com's Ondřej Zlámal.

Marek Kincl after scoring Sparta's winner against Lazio in 2003
Marek Kincl after scoring Sparta's winner against Lazio in 2003 ©Getty Images

The last time Lazio visited Prague's Letná Stadium, it ended in a major celebration for the hosts, Marek Kincl's goal taking Sparta through to the 2003/04 UEFA Champions League knockout phase. As the sides prepare to meet again in the UEFA Europa League, the Biancocelesti have every reason to be concerned.

Zdeněk Ščasný's team are on a nine-game winning streak in all competitions – which might have been 10 had a Czech First League fixture at Dukla Praha not been suspended because of snow om 29 February. "Competition for places is having a very positive effect," the coach said ahead of the spring campaign. "Everybody is highly motivated, not just during the games but also in every training session."

Highlights: Krasnodar 0-3 Sparta Praha
Highlights: Krasnodar 0-3 Sparta Praha

Sparta have been honed to switch between a three and four-man defence, a tactic which helped them eliminate Krasnodar in the round of 32 – the Russian club had only one shot on target in a 1-0 loss in Prague and were beaten 3-0 in the return fixture. Indeed, the Maroons are unbeaten in ten UEFA Europa League matches this term (W6 D4), and have won their last four on the bounce, keeping clean sheets in three of them.

Midfielder Lukáš Mareček was the unexpected first goalscorer in Krasnodar last time out, reward for the assured performances he has produced in the centre of the park, having bided his time to make that position his own since arriving from Anderlecht in 2013. Mid-season signing Ondřej Zahustel, meanwhile, is spicing things up on the right, defending and attacking well enough to give him a chance of selection in Pavel Vrba's Czech Republic squad for UEFA EURO 2016.

David Lafata has been out injured
David Lafata has been out injured©AFP/Getty Images

An injury to the Czech league's all-time top scorer David Lafata – who has registered five in the UEFA Europa League since the start of the group stage – has not been a disaster either, Bořek Dočkal's creativity maintaining the flow of goals, including two in two starts for 21-year-old Lukáš Juliš.

Now 36, defender Radoslav Kováč is the only member of the current side who witnessed Lazio's last visit; the hope is that all his team-mates will be able to say they too got the better of a big Italian club.

Sparta coach Zdeněk Ščasný
Sparta coach Zdeněk Ščasný©AFP/Getty Images