Sparta Prague vs. Liverpool: Europa League Round of 16 First Leg Preview

The Reds are back in European action, as they'll travel to Prague for this Round of 16 clash.

Nottingham Forest v Liverpool FC - Premier League
Nottingham Forest v Liverpool FC - Premier League / Neal Simpson/Allstar/GettyImages
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European football is always a special pursuit for Liverpool, and even though it’s not the competition to which we’ve become accustomed, this week’s matchup with Sparta Praha represents the next step in perhaps the club’s best chance to secure some more 2023-24 silverware.

The health of the squad is still a major narrative, but things are trending in the right direction in that area.

That’s a really good thing, as depth will be needed with Jürgen Klopp balancing this Europa League matchup with an absolutely massive Premier League clash with Manchester City on Sunday.

Let’s take a look at who might see the pitch for Liverpool in this one, and how they stack up against the defending Czech champions. 

Top of the Pitch

Once more, Mo Salah was questionable for last weekend’s match against Nottingham Forest, and once more he failed to be included in the matchday squad. Conversely, Darwin Núñez came off of the bench and scored a tremendous match-winning goal.

With these star forwards getting healthier and healthier, Darwin could probably start, but expect both to come off of the bench in order for them to be as fresh as possible against Man City this weekend, as Klopp will likely gamble that the “B-squad” can get the job done in Prague.

The good news is that the “b-squad” is looking better all the time, as the overall roster regains health. The Nottingham game saw a starting front three of Luis Díaz, Cody Gakpo, and Harvey Elliott.

Don’t expect anything too different in this game, although Jayden Danns could be a surprise inclusion in the XI after his FA Cup breakout brace.

Sparta are on track to defend their domestic league title, and they’re doing so with the league’s top defense in terms of goals allowed. However, things have been a bit different in the Europa League; they allowed seven goals in their six group stage matches, and four to Galatasaray in their two-legged play-off tie. 

The Midfield

Mercifully, we saw Dominik Szoboszlai and Wataru Endō both return to the pitch as subs against Forest. Suddenly, there’s depth at the position, and as admirable as his service in the role has been, that likely means the end of central defensive midfielder Joe Gomez, at least as a starter.

Youngster Bobby Clark has been good enough as a backup, while Alexis Mac Allister, who provided the assist for Darwin’s winner against Forest, has been in his best form since joining the club.

Definitely expect a red-hot Mac Allister to start, even if he doesn’t play the whole match in preparation for City.

I’d imagine that we’ll see about a half each from Endō and Szoboszlai, so Gomez, Clark, and James McConnell, another Academy player, could all be in store for spells of varying length.

Sparta’s midfield isn’t full of star names, but they stepped up in a huge way in their do-or-die match against Galatasaray. All three starters earned FotMob ratings of 7.7 or higher, and the group combined for a pair of assists and a goal.

The group didn’t dominate possession, but was creative enough to generate a staggering six big chances- four of which were converted. With the team’s 5-3-2 formation, the midfield is certainly a focal point and will provide a sneaky-tough matchup for Liverpool’s group.

The Back End

The defense is the one position group where we can expect a relatively full-strength group on both Wednesday and Sunday.

Starting twice in that kind of window is no new territory for Virgil van Dijk or Andy Robertson, and Conor Bradley is the only truly viable option at right back.

The other centre-back position is where we could see some rotation; expect some combination of Ibrahima Konaté, Jarell Quansah, and perhaps Gomez to split the duties between this match and the City one.

I’d expect Quansah to have a big role; he didn’t play against Forest, and is not likely to be used against City in a potential league-defining match. In a similar vein, Konaté could easily be in store for a day off ahead of the big day.

Sparta are tied as the highest-scoring team in the Czech league with 55 goals in 23 matches thus far.

They’ve also scored plenty of goals in continental play; three in their Champions League qualifying loss to Copenhagen, five across two legs of their Europa qualifier against Dinamo Zagreb, nine in their six group stage games and then six in their recent play-off against Galatasaray, including four at home in the second leg with the season on the line.

They’ve consistently played higher-scoring matches on their own pitch, so Liverpool will have to be careful to keep them off the scoresheet in the interest of keeping this tie as simple as possible ahead of the City clash.

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