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Europa League

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

Scott Challinor

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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

23 year old from Stoke-on-Trent. Avid Port Vale fan. Also follow Derby County & OGC Nice closely. BA Hons Modern Languages Graduate (University of Oxford). My prior experience in Sports Journalism comes from Volleyball & Floorball, having worked on major tournaments with the CEV, FIVB, & IFF. Have been contributing pieces to The Boot Room since 2016. Views are my own.

AC Milan

Victory in Milan, but is this another false dawn for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger?

Arsenal were triumphant in Milan despite their recent miserable form.

Jake Jackman

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Arsenal ended their losing run of four matches with an excellent performance away to AC Milan in the Europa League. This competition has the potential to save the Gunners season and the commitment from every player suggested that they want to go all the way.

They were coming up against a team full of confidence under Gennaro Gattuso. Milan hadn’t lost a match since the end of December. The Serie A club hadn’t conceded a goal in six and had won five of those inside ninety minutes.

These sides came into this fixture in remarkably different form, but football is played on grass and not on paper.

Despite Milan having more attempts, it was Arsenal who created the better chances. They had a couple of half-chances early on before the opening goal.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has had a hot and cold start to life in a Gunners’ shirt, but he was one of the best players on the pitch in Italy. His goal was emphatically taken as he drove the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma.

It is important to capitalise when you are on top, especially away from home in European competitions and Arsenal did just that. As the first-half progressed, they continued to create the better opportunities. Both Danny Welbeck and Mkhitaryan had good chances to double the visitors’ lead, but they were squandered.

(Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

In stoppage-time of half-time, Arsenal scored a second to give them a commanding lead in the tie. It was a great move from the team and Mesut Ozil found Aaron Ramsey who coolly rounded Donnarumma before putting the ball into the net.

The first-half performance from Arsenal was one of the best that supporters have seen this season. They were better all over the pitch and showed the work rate that they had lacked in previous weeks. Milan pushed in the second half, but they couldn’t penetrate the Gunners’ defence.

Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi were both excellent. Arsene Wenger will be hoping that both are returning to their best after some uncharacteristic errors in previous matches. The centre-back pairing made eight ball recoveries and were always in the right position on Thursday.

Patrick Cutrone is a teenager with a big future, but the young striker had no luck out of the Arsenal defence and that will encourage the manager.

Another player to emerge with credit is Danny Welbeck. The ineligibility of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the injury of Alexandre Lacazette means that the Englishman started the game up front for Arsenal. It was a huge opportunity for him after being pushed down the pecking order at the club and he took it with both hands.

The Englishman worked tirelessly and caused problems with his movement.

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Although his final product wasn’t great, he was a constant threat and led the defensive effort from the front. Welbeck will never be a leading Premier League striker, but he is effective in matches such as this one. He deserves more opportunities during the run-in.

It would be too soon to get carried away for Arsenal fans. There are still questions regarding Arsene Wenger and the work rate of the players, but this was an excellent performance that finally provides the club with positive momentum. They have had a miserable few weeks and the supporters can get excited about their team once again.

When the draw was made, a lot of supporters checked their expectations when it came to the Europa League. Milan were the overwhelming favourites, but Arsenal have taken a dominant position in the tie and should be able to finish the job in London.

If they can do that, they will move into the quarter-final stage. Although it will be difficult to win it, they will have as good a chance as any.

There have been many false dawns for Arsenal in recent years and this could be another one. That said, it takes enormous character to go away to a huge stadium like the San Siro after a poor run of form and win comfortably.

Considering the criticism that they have had for their lack of desire, few would have thought the Gunners to be capable of a result like this.

It is now up to Wenger to prove that he can get this level of effort and performance out of his players on a regular basis. The Frenchman remains in a difficult position with no margin for error. If he is going to keep his job, he needs to finish the season strongly and win the Europa League.

It won’t be an easy challenge, but this performance and result will give him hope that he can upset the odds to claim his first European trophy.

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Europa League

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

The Boot Room

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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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