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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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.
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.
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.
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