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Europa League

Southampton vs AC Sparta Prague: Match preview and predicted line-ups

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After narrowly missing out on the group stages of this competition last season, Southampton look forward to their first venture into the Europa League proper under Claude Puel; a home contest against Czech club Sparta Prague in Group K on Thursday.

Sparta finished second in the Czech top-flight last season, and it will be a quick return to English football for Tomas Rosicky, the former Arsenal man who is now a part of Zdenek Scasny’s squad that will head to St. Mary’s.

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Despite Sparta Prague having the superior European pedigree, Southampton will be odds on favourites to take an opening three points from Matchday 1 in the Europa League, particularly with the boost of a home crowd behind them. It will be important for the Saints to get off the mark at home, not only to ease the pressure on new boss Claude Puel, but with daunting away trips to Inter Milan and Hapoel Be’er Sheva to go with the return match in Prague, getting points on the road in this tournament may prove a tough slog.

Saints therefore need to make their home games count, and they have a great chance of doing just that with Sparta up first on the South Coast.

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Puel would have been managing in this competition had he stayed at his former club, having steered OGC Nice to this competition with a fourth place finish in Ligue 1 last year. Dismissed by the Riviera club however, he now has a second chance to prove himself in Europe once more with Saints, having guided Olympique Lyonnais to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League back in 2009/10.

Recent form

Southampton have suffered an indifferent start to the season under new boss Claude Puel, yet to taste victory in the Premier League following their opening four matches, drawing 1-1 in back-to-back home games with Watford and Sunderland whilst losing on the road at Manchester United and Arsenal, the latter a disappointing loss to a late penalty kick having put in a spirited performance.

A changing of the manager to contend with alongside the loss of Sadio Mane, Graziano Pellè and Victor Wanyama has of course contributed to Saints’ slow domestic start. It seems a matter of time however for a talented Southampton side before things begin to click under Claude Puel, and the Europa League provides an ideal opportunity for Saints to kickstart their season as well as something new for the fans to get excited about.

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Saints’ historic European record is also cause for encouragement – they are unbeaten in five European home games with one win and four draws. This run which stretches as far back as a 4-2 reverse to Sporting Lisbon in a UEFA Cup match way back in 1981. It is uncharted waters for Saints in the new Europa League however, the closest they have come prior to this season was the final qualifying round, where they bowed out to Danish club FC Midtjylland.

It will be the first time in history that the Saints have clashed with Thursday’s opponents Sparta Prague however, whose record in 18 European matches against English opposition is three wins, four draws and 11 defeats- with one win, two draws and six losses away from home.

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Sparta are without a win in their last 14 fixtures involving Premier League opposition, drawing four and losing ten. The Czech side are also win-less in their last three European away matches, with a draw and two defeats to opposition including Villarreal and Steaua Bucharest. They have however reached the knockout stages in three of their seven UEFA Cup and UEFA Europa League group stage campaigns, including three of the last four occasions that they have featured in the competition. They have even gone as far as the quarter-finals last season before being knocked out by La Liga outfit Villarreal.

Sparta demonstrated their mettle in fighting their way into the group stages this year though, coming back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 on aggregate against Danish Superliga side SønderjyskE Fodbold in the final qualifying round. Around that qualifying tie they have won two of their last three in the Czech First League, with wins against Jablonec and city rivals Dukla Prague before a 2-2 draw over the weekend with Mlada Boleslav. They currently sit second in the table of the Czech top-flight.

Predicted line-ups

It seems likely that Claude Puel will keep faith with the same back four that was so cruelly denied at Arsenal over the weekend, with Fraser Forster continuing in goal and skipper Jose Fonte lining up alongside Virgil Van Dijk in central defence, providing the latter can overcome a minor knock to be fit. Cedric Soares is the favourite to come in again at right-back, and Ryan Bertrand is expected to start at left-back over youngster Matt Targett.

Oriol Romeu is the only recognised defensive midfielder at St. Mary’s following Wanyama’s departure for Tottenham Hotspur and he is expected to keep his place therefore, with Jordie Clasie acting as the box-to-box option with Steven Davis as a midfield partner.

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Dusan Tadic will likely play in the free role as the midfield spearhead to complete the typical Saints diamond, with Nathan Redmond – recently converted to a forward under Puel – playing up front alongside Shane Long.

As for Sparta, first-choice shot-stopper Tomas Koubek will likely play behind a back four of Czech international Michal Kadlec, Mario Holek, Zimbabwean Costa Nhamoinesu and Russian left-back Vyacheslav Karaveyev, who is expected to get the nod over Ondrej Zahustel. Czech international attacker Borek Dockal has been a surprise omission from Sparta’s last three matches and may miss out again along with Michal Sacek. Lukas Vacha and Lukas Maracek could therefore start in the centre of a four-man midfield, with Martin Frydek and Josef Sural on the flanks.

Tomas Rosicky has been a regular feature from the bench and may well start as a substitute once more, with the forward pairing expected to be skipper David Lafata and Vaclav Kadlec, with Lukas Julis and Matej Pulkrab in reserve.

                                 Southampton predicted starting XI        Sparta Prague predicted starting XI

 

Suspensions/injuries

Virgil Van Dijk is a doubt at centre-back for Claude Puel’s team but should recover from a minor knock in time to start against Sparta Prague. Ryan Bertrand is expected to miss out through a minor knee injury which should keep him sidelined for a week, so Matt Targett is in line to replace him.

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Zdenek Scasny on the other hand has a fully fit Sparta Prague squad to choose from and should be able to take his full compliment to the South Coast in Thursday’s clash.

Our prediction

Southampton come into this match as a team in transition and aren’t in ideal shape, but they are still a strong and capable group of players at home, having not suffered defeat at St. Mary’s since February 2016. Sparta Prague have a poor record against English opposition, with no wins in 14 games against Premier League sides, but they are a team more than capable of negotiating the group stage matches effectively as history shows. They were unbeaten in their group last season with three wins and three draws from their six matches against Schalke, Asteras Tripolis and APOEL Nicosia, and were able to dispose of Krasnodar and Serie A club Lazio in last season’s knockout stages- including a sensational 3-0 win over the latter in the away leg at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

We fancy Southampton to keep their unbeaten home record going but the Czechs will show their pedigree and hold firm in a 1-1 draw to share the honours.

Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Aries Arsenal

Scott is a Port Vale fan who writes regularly for The Boot Room as a freelancer. He is a fan of several sports but most of his experience in journalism comes from football and volleyball. He has produced several works on major Championships for both the FIVB and CEV in the volleyball world out in Switzerland, and is currently studying for a BA Hons in Modern Languages at the University of Oxford.

Europa League

Everton’s 4-1 defeat to Southampton adds to growing problems at Goodison Park

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Everton’s 4-1 defeat to Southampton this Sunday left them just two points above the relegation zone in a season that is going from bad to worse for the Toffees. The four goals conceded by David Unsworth’s side meant they have now let in 28 goals from just 13 matches.

Although Gylfi Sigurdsson’s long range strike was a positive for Everton, there was little else to write home about in a game that Southampton dominated.

It has been well documented that the Toffees’ summer recruitment has been a big reason behind their lack of success, with insufficient signings in key areas. One of those areas was highlighted profoundly on Sunday, with Leighton Baines going off with a knee injury in the first half.

Everton did not have another natural left-back in the match-day squad, so centre back Ashley Williams was brought on to replace the Englishman, with Aaron Lennon shifted into a wing-back role.

Lennon is not a natural in that position and is far more effective further forward and, somewhat predictably, two Southampton goals originated from his side.

Although this defeat comes as a fresh blow to Unsworth, it is the managerial uncertainty surrounding the club that is causing Everton major issues.

Ronald Koeman was sacked by chairman Farhad Mohsiri nearly five weeks ago now, and the club still seem no closer to appointing his successor.

Martin O’Neill was touted as the leading favourite for the vacany earlier this week, but whether he would be tempted into returning to club football after a stint with Republic of Ireland remains to be seen.

Marco Silva has also been approached, with Everton rumoured to be willing to pay £20 million in compensation to prize him away from Watford, according to the Hertfordshire Mercury.

Nonetheless, the Hornets have firmly stated that they will not allow their manager to take the reins at Goodison Park.

Unsworth was put under more pressure on Thursday, with Everton losing 5-1 to Italian side Atalanta, their heaviest home loss in Europe.

It is difficult to blame the former Sheffield United defender for most of his side’s troubles currently, with Everton’s players clearly shot of confidence.

He has made some major changes to the club’s personnel, switching from the winger-less system that Koeman employed, while bringing Aaron Lennon, Kevin Mirallas and Sandro Ramirez back to the first team.

He has also given promising full-back Jonjoe Kenny a run in the team ahead of the under-performing Cuco Martina.

It can also be argued that Everton are missing the experience and quality of long-term absentees Seamus Coleman, Ross Barkley and Yannick Bolasie – three players who would surely be some of the first names on the team sheet at Goodison Park.

However, all of the players above were injured during the summer, a window in which Everton spent nearly £200 million on players.

Gylfi Sigurdsson has shown glimpses of his quality, scoring an excellent goal against Southampton, and Jordan Pickford has performed as well as could be expected, but many other Everton signings have taken time to settle into the side.

Davy Klaassen, signed from Ajax for £23.6 million, and Martina did not make it into the match day squad against Southampton. Meanwhile, Sandro had struggled until his goal against Atalanta on Thursday.

Wayne Rooney, who is the Toffees’ 2nd top scorer, has even been dropped to the bench in recent weeks.

Overall, Everton desperately need a managerial appointment to bring stability and confidence to a squad that is currently sliding towards the Premier League relegation zone.

Although Toffees fans are against the appointment, Sam Allardyce could provide the self-belief necessary to steer the club clear of the drop.

He is renowned as a specialist in helping teams survive, but it is worth remembering the success he had in charge of Bolton, getting to the last 16 of the 2005/06 UEFA Cup and coming within one place of qualifying for the Champions League during his final season in charge of the Trotters.

Regardless of who does take over at Goodison, the key for Everton is getting a manager into the club ahead of January and a transfer window that could be crucial in defining the club’s season.

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Arsenal

Arsenal’s Europa League group – who are their opponents?

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Arsenal

For the first time in over two decades – and for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s tenure in north London – Arsenal will be playing their European football on Thursday nights in the Europa League.

Failure to finish in the Premier League top-four has left the Gunners fighting it out in second-tier competition, yet few will bet against them emulating rivals Manchester United and going all the way.

A favourable draw has merely compounded their position as favourites, with Wenger’s men pitted in Group H against BATE Borisov, German outfit FC Koln and Serbian side Red Star Belgrade.

To save you from having to Google their opponents – a la Tottenham’s Danny RoseThe Boot Room has taken a look at the three teams that stand between Arsenal and a spot in the Europa League knockout stage.

BATE Borisov

Perhaps the toughest side that Arsenal will face during the group stages, BATE Borisov have Champions League pedigree and last featured in 2015/16, facing then reigning champions Barcelona.

On that occasion they held a good account for themselves, missing out on the knock-out stages by a single point after beating Italian side Roma and earning a point against Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen.

On a domestic level they have dominated the Belarus league in recent times – winning the previous eleven titles – although they are struggling this season, sitting in third place after 19 matches, to date.

A Champions League qualifier defeat to Slavia Prague of the Czech Republic over two legs will hardly leave Wenger – or Arsenal fans – quaking in their boots when they meet in the group stages.

FC Koln

The Bundesliga side may be embarking on European football for the first time since the 1992/93 season but they certainly have previous in this competition, ending runners-up in 1985/86 edition.

On their day they can be a dangerous side – last season they held Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to away draws in the league – and they will look to stifle Arsenal’s attacking style of play.

But with their main-man Anthony Modeste, who scored 25 goals in the Bundesliga, leaving for a lucrative deal in the Chinese Super League the Germans shouldn’t prove to be much of an obstacle.

Red Star Belgrade

Completing the line-up for Arsenal’s group is Serbian outfit Red Star Belgrade, a side that have reached the group stage of European competition for the first time since the UEFA Cup in 2007/08.

To make it to here they’ve already beaten Floriana of Malta, Irtysh Pavlador of Kazakhstan, Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic and Russia’s Kuban Krasnodar so they’re already well-versed this year.

Red Star – the lesser known side of Serbia’s capital alongside Partizan Belgrade – were narrowly pipped to their domestic title last year by their rivals but, on their day at home, they’re a tough side.

The two sides have actually met in Europe before, way back in 1978 when the north London side actually lost 2-1 in the last-16 of the UEFA Cup, and revenge will no doubt be on the cards this year.

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Europa League

Three things learnt as Everton progressed past MFK Ruzomberok in the Europa League

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Everton

Ronald Koeman’s new-look Everton side comfortably saw off Slovakian minnows MFK Ruzomberok on Thursday evening to secure their spot in the Europa League play-off round.

In a match that mirrored the slow tempo of the first-leg, both teams failed to register an attempt on target in the first-half and it was the home side that went closest with a free header at the near post.

Morgan Schneiderlin had Everton’s best chance prior to the goal, heading wide from Sandro Ramirez’s corner, but it was substitute Dominic Calvert-Lewin who ensured the Toffees’ safe progress into the next round after slotting neatly into the far corner just 11 minutes after coming on.

The draw for the play-off round takes place on Friday afternoon, with the winner advancing to the Europa League group stage, and the ties will take place consecutively on August 17 and August 24.

The Boot Room takes a look at three things we learnt from an easy European night for Everton…

Tempo of play needs to improve

From their laboured victory over MFK Ruzomberok at Goodison Park last week it was clear to see that there was a lack of pace and tempo in Everton’s play, and this didn’t improve last night either.

Despite Koeman’s claims pre-match that his side would play with attacking intent their second-leg encounter was arguably even more tedious than the first, barely testing their goalkeeper all match.

And it was evident to see that there’s a lack of pace in the Toffees’ side, missing the attacking player that will drive at defenders with intent and cause problems, and it just showed how desperate they are for Yannick Bolasie to return from his lengthy injury lay-off and add another attacking dimension.

The arrival of Calvert-Lewin from the bench significantly upped the tempo – and it’s no surprise that he made the telling impact on the night – but there’s work to be done before the new season begins.

Tom Davies at wing-back doesn’t work

Ronald Koeman is understandably still going through an experimental stage with his squad after his summer spending spree, but utilising young Tom Davies as a wing-back is one of his weirder try-outs.

The void of Seamus Coleman is huge heading into the new season, and although new signing Cuco Martina didn’t particularly impress during the first-leg it doesn’t seem that Davies is the correct alternative to the role, as he is far more effective at Everton as a marauding box-to-box midfielder.

The 18-year-old was perhaps one of Everton’s better players on the night but, up against Premier League standard opposition, he may struggle to be potent in attack and be caught out at the back.

And at such a young age he needs all of the education he needs in one position to develop his potential as a future England international player, so Koeman would be wise to end this experiment.

Rooney and Sandro Ramirez could be a formidable partnership

Heading in to the match last night Everton’s chosen strike duo for the evening may be forgiven for thinking it would have been a competition for who could score the most goals, and although it didn’t transpire into a goal-fest there were signs that Rooney and Sandro are building chemistry.

Especially during the first-half the duo were constantly on the look-out for each other, with the former Manchester United man in particular pulling on some intricate flicks and passes at times.

Sandro’s ability to stretch the defensive line with his runs to the edge of the box could prove to be incredibly useful in the Premier League, opening up space for midfield runners through the middle.

It was by no means vintage Everton, and the new signings will want to open their accounts sooner rather than later, but Koeman’s side are still in pre-season mode – the real test begins next Saturday.

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