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Match Preview: Liverpool v. Sparta Prague, 02.17.11

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Liverpool head to the Czech Republic to face Sparta Prague.

And let's just get it out of the way---"THIS IS SPARTA" is not an acceptable joke anymore. Questionable whether it ever was. Fight the impulse. Okay, we know you did it anyway at some point. Get over it.

European football returns for Liverpool after what seems like an eternity, and it's at a great time. This tie gives us our only taste of Liverpool football for the next week and a half and bridges the gap between the Wigan match and the next league matchup at Upton Park on the 27th of February.

It also gives me a chance to embarrass myself by writing about an opponent that I've had little time to research.

That's one of the endearing aspects of the Europa League, even if it sets the table for me to make a complete ass of myself (track my Disqus profile for further evidence). What we do know is that Sparta are the defending champions of the Czech First League and are currently second on points behind Viktoria Plzeň, where they've been since they last played a league match in November. They fell in Champions League qualifying to Žilina 4-0 on aggregate, but managed to qualify for the knockout stages after finishing second in Group F behind CSKA Moscow.

In terms of personnel, I'm punting and pointing to nate at oh you beauty, who's got a breakdown of their comings and goings as well as a link to the Play Waved On blog, which has more information about the Czech side:

The January transfer window saw a fairly large exodus. Top scorer Wilfried Bony – who had five goals in the group stage – was sold to Vitesse Arnhem, while Slovakian international midfielder Kucka left for Genoa. The aforementioned Play Waved On article has an excellent round-up of the Czech side, unsurprisingly highlighting 18-year-old prodigy Vaclav Kadlec, who should get a chance to shine in Bony's absence.

As for Liverpool:

1. Who will start for Liverpool?
2. What’s the most important factor for the Reds?
3. Who’s going to win and what’s going to be the scoreline?

1. Who will start for Liverpool?

Reina
Kelly Carragher Kyrgiakos Johnson
Lucas Aurelio
Kuyt Meireles Maxi
Ngog

---Plenty names missing through injury from the 23-man squad that was named earlier---Steven Gerrard and Daniel Agger are the newest additions, while Andy Carroll, Jonjo Shelvey, and Jay Spearing continue to miss out. Carroll's the only name in that group that will make the trip; the rest stay at home along with Christian Poulsen, whose wife went into labor, and Luis Suarez, who's unfortunately cup-tied as a result of his participation with Ajax in the Champions League.

---As Noel noted earlier when he stole my exclusive, the absence of the above names has led to Kenny Dalglish including a number of academy players in the squad, most notably man-boy of the hour Raheem Sterling. There's also room for Conor Coady, John Flanagan, and record-holder Jack Robinson. Thomas Ince will also travel with the team but isn't named in the squad. Odds of seeing any of them for any extended period of time are slim, but I'm sure the experience alone will be fantastic.

---It's not as though it's entirely clear who we will or won't see, though---Joe Cole is back in the squad after an extended lay-off, but I'm guessing it's too soon to throw him back into action. We really get back to the 3 at the back versus four at the back conversation, and that again informs the personnel and shape we'll see tomorrow. We also can't forget that this is Europe and every stereotype we every hear about what European competition looks like will apply.

---I've gone with four at the back, Sotirios Kyrgiakos replacing Martin Skrtel alongside Jamie Carragher, and Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly at fullback. The three center backs mentioned could easily all get the nod, and if that's the case we'll see Johnson and Kelly slide up into wingback/midfield roles.

---The front five or six is similarly flexible, but as we saw against Wigan, they're lacking for quality depth. Lucas, Raul Meireles, Fabio Aurelio, and Dirk Kuyt are probably the strongest midfield players in the squad, and if they all feature, we're likely to see David Ngog get a start. Kuyt's been decent in the lone-man role of late, though, so nothing's guaranteed for the rarely seen Ngog. Or, Dani Pacheco and other hopeful mutterings.

2. What’s the most important factor for the Reds?

I joke about the European competition stereotype, but there's likely to be something undoubtedly different about the way things will play out. The buzz about the younger squad can't take away from Liverpool's need to be well-organized and well-prepared against an opponent that's going to be foreign in more ways than one. It's a match they're expected to win---I think we can all agree on that---but one that could also go south quickly. For all the talk about the Europa League being the red-headed so and so, it's lined Liverpool up in some locations that are less than ideal.

Regardless of all that, though, it's a chance for Liverpool to continue their resurgance after a disappointing result against Wigan on Saturday.

3. Who’s going to win and what’s going to be the scoreline?

I think it'll be tough, but I also think Liverpool are more than capable of coming away with the advantage. 3-0 Liverpool. Not an underestimation of Sparta, but a statement of confidence in Liverpool.

For the first time in what seems like forever, viewers in both the UK and the US will be able to watch the match live on TV. Those stateside will need GolTV, whereas British viewers can see it on Five. Even with the kerfluffle about streams being victimized by faceless corporate mercenaries, there'll be plenty of ways to see it if you're not fortunate enough to be seated in front of a television come tomorrow afternoon/evening. Matchday thread will, as usual, be up in the morning with the day's news and links for ways to watch.

Have a nice Wednesday everyone---decent football on for today, so hopefully you're able to watch.