But Slovakian team having a chaotic season
20 October ~ Slovan Bratislava v Sparta Prague may not be the most glamorous of Thursday's Europa League matches, but it evokes its fair share of nostalgia. The two most successful clubs in Slovakia and the Czech Republic respectively are, after all, meeting in a competitive fixture for the first time since 1992-93, the final season of the federal Czechoslovak league. Sparta generally held the edge over Slovan in the federal era, winning 21 titles to the Bratislava club's eight.
They have been more dominant over domestic rivals since the Czech-Slovak "velvet divorce" too, finishing top of the Czech league 12 times since 1994. As for Slovan, it is only in the last two seasons that they have drawn clear of MSK Zilina as independent Slovakia‘s leading club. Slovan at least have the greater European success behind them. The most significant of all their achievements remains the 1969 Cup-Winners Cup, which they won courtesy of a 3-2 final victory over Barcelona.
Slovan are going through a difficult period, both on and off the field. Realistically, they might not have expected much better than two defeats from their Group I games against Young Boys Bern and Napoli, but their performance in the 5-0 loss to the Swiss team was definite cause for alarm. More unexpectedly, they have also endured a poor recent run in the league, losing matches by 3-0 and 4-0 and also going down 1-0 to newly promoted Podbrezova.
These results have given rise to some disturbing developments. In the wake of the Bern defeat, one Slovan ultras group demanded, via an open letter to Slovak media, that long-serving midfielder Juraj Halenar be indefinitely excluded from the squad because of a gesture he'd allegedly made at away supporters during the game. More sinister still, Slovan staff turned up at the club's training-ground the day after the Trencin game to find death threats and crosses daubed on the walls.
More inevitably, Czech coach Frantisek Straka paid for the run with his job. This too was a regrettable development; a Sparta legend in his playing days (he made 223 first-team appearances between 1979 and 1988), the likeable Straka was responsible for much of the nostalgic talk about Thursday's game once the group-stage draw had been made. Jozef Chovanec, Straka's replacement as Slovan coach, has even stronger Sparta connections. He played a total of 382 games in three separate spells in Prague, and later enjoyed two successful coaching spells there.
The biggest issue of all for Slovan is their ground. It is now five years since Tehelne Pole, where they'd played since 1940, was demolished, and the question of if and when it will be rebuilt remains unanswered. In the meantime, “home" fixtures continue to be staged just 400 yards from the site of their old ground, at Pasienky. This venue, built mainly for athletics in the 1960s, is unpopular with Slovan fans. Club administrators, meanwhile, admitted to feelings of relief when, after a repeat inspection, UEFA finally passed it fit to host group-stage games.
Sparta are no strangers to behind-the-scenes troubles themselves, but the long-term prognosis looks more secure for them than it does for Slovan. Their current form looks better too, both in the Czech league, where they are just one point behind leaders Viktoria Plzen, and the Europa League, where their most recent outing saw them overcome Young Boys. They will be strong favourites to inflict another defeat on Slovan. Yet there are few certainties in football, and a win over an old cross-border rival might be just what Slovan need to start feeling good about themselves again. James Baxter