Good Friends. Bitter Enemies

On a soaking wet Sunday night, Slovan Liberec and Sparta Prague renewed hostilities.

In recent years, matches between these two sides, especially when played in North Bohemia, have displayed a lot of needle, a sprinkling of cynicism and a penchant for brutalism. This encounter was no different.

In theory, however, these two clubs should have a level of respect for one another. After all, many of those who took part have a shared history with people on the opposing side. Sparta have sent or sold a number of academy graduates to Liberec, who, in turn, tend not to kick up a fuss when the Prague side comes knocking in search of their best players. Josef Šural, Martin Frýdek and Tomáš Koubek are the prime examples of this relationship, though, with Lukáš Vácha, Matěj Pulkrab, David Bičík and others absent from this fixture, the bond between the squads runs much deeper than the six that featured on Sunday.

Slovan’s board might not want to admit it, but they need Sparta’s generosity in order to compete at the highest level, something that is unlikely to change unless the club either is sold or finds new commercial partners with extremely deep pockets. Because of that, they can hardly turn their noses up at the chance to have the pick of Sparta’s youngsters and those in desperate need of playing time. And let’s not forget that Jindřich Trpišovský is clearly trusted by the Letná clubs hierarchy. He has after all, been touted as a Sparta Prague manager of the future.

The problem is that this familiarity breeds contempt, not just between the players but also between the fans – especially those from the former cloth capital of the Czech Republic. It would be wrong to call it an inferiority complex, but there’s something extremely appealing about being able to get one over a club that continuously raids your best talent and gives you cast-offs and youngsters in replace. And so the atmosphere becomes raucous and every successful tackle is celebrated as if the league title has been secured. Add in a footballer’s competitive streak the game morphs into a blood-and-thunder fixture filled with fouls and takes place at a break-neck speed. It makes for enthralling viewing.

The first yellow card of Sunday was shown after eighteen minutes when Michal Sáček was booked for a cynical foul. Though truth be told, Miroslav Zelinka, the referee, could have got his cards out earlier as, almost from the first whistle, Martin Frýdek went on a one man wrecking spree.

In total, twelve yellow cards were shown and three red, with Ondřej Kúdela , Milan Kerbr and Eldar Čivič the ones to receive their marching orders for persistent fouling and back chatting. Even Tomáš Rosický, on once again as a second half substitute, wanted to join in on the fun and was booked for a wild lunge on Liberec’s young forward Martin Graiciar.

Amidst the flurry of cards and endless cycle of fouls, Liberec, tactically at least, were very astute. The hosts lined up with a back three and wingbacks, man marking David Lafata out of the game and simultaneously nullifying the threat that Sparta posed out wide. In the middle, Jan Mikula roamed around, closing down everyone and denying the likes of Sáček, Frýdek and Mandjeck any space or time on the ball at all. Sparta responded in kind and were dragged out of their gameplan as a result. It wasn’t pretty, but it was generally effective. The only time they were really in danger was when Martin Frýdek opened the scoring and on the odd occasion that Jonathan Biabiany’s pace proved too much for lesser men to deal with.

And let’s not forget that the U Nisy pitch played its part in creating the tension too. Far from being a carpet that one might expect at the Allianz Arena, the Emirates or even Eden, it is a bobbled surface that punishes misplaced passes and disrupts the rhythm of the attacking side. This impacted Sparta’s advances and helped turn the game into a close-combat battle. In an attempt to bypass the pitch entirely, Andrea Stramaccioni’s side tried to go long but they were unable to utilise their route-one option with any real success. With every pass that went awry and every long ball that failed to set Jonathan Biabiany free, the crowd roared and Liberec – and Trpisovsky – become emboldened.

That said, Sparta should have wrapped this game up easily. Aided by the rapid-fire dismissals of Kúdela and Kerbr in two tempestuous second half minutes, the Prague club should have made their superiority count. But when Tomáš Koubek spilt Roman Potočný’s free-kick and Radim Breite reacted quickest, you just knew that it wasn’t going to be the Letná club’s night. No matter how hard they pushed – even when down to ten men themselves – they couldn’t find that second goal. Two major decisions went against them that would have (probably) seen them pick up all three points. Instead, they left Liberec frustrated. The home fans, meanwhile, cheered as if it were 2012.

After the match, the discourse quickly soured. Ondrej Kúdela protested his innocence and openly queried the justification of his second yellow card. Meanwhile, Jindřich Trpišovský and Andrea Stramaccioni started an inflammatory war of words that has seemingly spiralled out of all control and has drawn journalists and club officials into the mix.

The allegations made by the two coaches are ugly: Trpišovský claims that Tal Ben Chaim actively tried to get Liberec’s players dismissed and routinely insulted his opponents ; Stramaccioni refuted those claims and countered, alleging that the Israeli winger was himself subject to a constant barrage of anti-Semitic insults

The Czech FA has remained silent on Stramaccioni’s claims so far. Perhaps the disciplinary commission is waiting for a formal accusation to be made to them, though it is patently obvious that they need investigating anyway. And, if they are proven to be true, then those responsible need to be punished accordingly.

Two clubs who should be best of friends could now be the worst of enemies.

The curious transfer of Gino van Kessel

Oxford manager Pep Clotet has been tracking the Curaçaoan international for a while and pushed to sign him twelve months ago when he was the assistant at Leeds United. It has been a year, but the highly rated Spaniard finally got his man.

However, the timing of the deal caught everybody by surprise, as David Pritchard, Chief Sports Writer and the Oxford Mail explains: “As time passed it looked like the deal had gone cold. [Oxford] United were looking at other attacking players on trial instead, so in the end, it was a surprise to see something agreed with Slavia.”

Quite what those in the city (no, not a village) of Zlín think about van Kessel’s switch to League One remains to be seen but fans of Oxford United have already taken him to heart after scoring on his debut against Portsmouth at the weekend.

“There has been a big reaction following his stunning goal. Gino has only played a few minutes for Oxford, but he is already a big favourite with the supporters.” Pritchard told me.

Given that Jaroslav Tvrdik was less than complimentary about his one-time employee, could Slavia regret letting Gino van Kessel slip through their fingers?

Goals are overrated

After three rounds of the season, only one side remains goalless: Vysočina Jihlava. Everybody else has managed to score at least twice, including an anaemic looking Zbrojovka Brno outfit. Heck, even Slovácko managed to score five at the weekend.

It took over half-an-hour for Jihlava to threaten Slavia’s goal on Friday evening, with their best chance coming well into the second half when the reigning champions were 2-0 up and cruising.

Jiří Klíma showed promise and Davis Ikaunieks, who scored nine times from midfield, remains a threat from deep. But with Petr Hronek linked with a move away and Michael Rabušic out injured, the club from the Highlands really need to bolster their options up front. If not, they will surely live up to their billing as relegation favourites.

HET Liga Results

Friday 11th August

Slavia Prague 2-0 Vysočina Jihlava

Saturday 12th August

Slovácko 5-2 Baník Ostrava
Viktoria Plzeň 1-0 Sigma Olomouc
Zbrojovka Brno 0-0 Bohemians 1905

Sunday 13th August

Dukla Prague 1-0 Zlín
Karviná 1-1 Mladá Boleslav
Slovan Liberec 1-1 Sparta Prague
Teplice 1-1 Jablonec

  • Posted by Chris Boothroyd
  • On 16th August 2017