With Sporting all but out of the title race, Jorge Jesus and his squad have set their sights on Europa League glory as the number one priority for the remainder of the season.
A last-16 draw again Czech team Viktoria Plzen seemingly handed the Lisbon club a good chance of reaching the quarter-finals of the competition… or did it?
With the help of Czech football journalist Chris Boothroyd and Viktoria Plzen fan Martin Mrhálek, PortuGOAL has the full lowdown on Sporting’s Europa League opponents.
Current form. What has Viktoria Plzen’s form been like this season, and especially recently?
Chris Boothroyd: Domestically, Plzeň have hardly put a foot wrong this season. With eleven games left, Viktoria have effectively wrapped up their fifth Czech title as they sit top, nine points ahead of Slavia Prague in second and with a game in hand over their nearest rivals. They are the league’s highest scorers and have the meanest defence, conceding just six times in eighteen games.
But like many leagues in Central and Eastern Europe, the HET Liga breaks off during the winter months and consequently, Plzeň have played just four competitive matches since the beginning of December. Two of those were in the Europa League against Partizan (1-1 away, 2-0 at home) and two in the league: a 0-0 draw with Sigma Olomouc and a 1-0 defeat to Vysočina Jihlava. That loss to Jihlava was Plzeň’s first loss in the league in the league this season and their first league defeat in almost a year – the previous time they had been the losing side in a HET Liga game was back in April 2017.
Ones to watch - Who are Viktoria Plzen’s star players?
Chris Boothroyd: The only real star name in the Plzeň squad is Michael Krmenčík, a throwback forward who just can’t stop scoring at the moment. He will not win any awards for being technically gifted, but the 24-year-old has seventeen goals in all competitions for Viktoria so far this season, plus a handful for the Czech Republic too.
A handful of English clubs have shown interest in him, with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leeds United and Newcastle all linked with him at one stage or another. It is believed that there have also been offers from France, though Plzeň’s stance has been quite clear: he’s not going anywhere until the summer and the club has secured its place in the Champions League next year.
Aside from Krmenčík, I’m personally a huge fan of the usual central midfield pairing of Tomáš Hořava and Patrik Hrošovský.
Strong points/weak points – what must Sporting beware of and what can they exploit?
Chris Boothroyd: It’s the obvious cliché to say that there are no easy games in Europe at this stage but all things considered, Sporting shouldn’t really fear Plzeň too much as the gulf in quality between the two sides should be obvious over two legs. That said, Plzeň are a well-drilled team and are often a lot better than the sum of their parts. They’re extremely strong on the counter and will look to use the pace of wingers Milan Petržela and Martin Zeman, the directness of Jan Kopic and the physicality of Krmenčík to unsettle their opponents.
As for weaknesses to exploit, the centre of midfield is extremely lightweight. Defensive midfield has been a long-standing problem area at the club and while Hořava and Hrošovský are great all-around options, neither of them are what you would class as natural holding players.
Formation and playing style – what system do Viktoria Plzen usually play? Would you describe them generically as an attacking or a defensive team?
Chris Boothroyd: Pavel Vrba returned to the club last summer for a second spell as manger and he wasted no time in rebuilding the side in his image once more. Plzeň will line up in a 4-2-3-1, will look to retain possession and try to create overloads on the flanks as their fullbacks push forwards to support the wingers. They are a little more direct than they once were, though this is more likely due to having a true target man up front in Krmenčík.
While many things haven’t changed between Pavel Vrba’s first stint and this one, his approach in European games has. This season, Plzeň have been a lot more pragmatic than they have been previously. Away from home, they tend to sit deeper and be more reactive whereas at home they really do look to dominate proceedings.
What are the local press saying about the Europa League draw? Do they expect Plzen to progress into the next round?
Chris Boothroyd: Not much has been said at the time of writing, as in typical fashion, Sparta Prague decided to sack their manager after a poor result at the weekend, a move that’s pretty much dominated the back pages since. However, speaking to people and gauging expectations, nobody is really giving Plzeň too much of a chance. There could have been kinder draws than Sporting, that’s for sure.
Mood in the camp – judging by player/coach quotes regarding this game, do you think Viktoria Plzen come into the match in a confident frame of mind?
Chris Boothroyd: There’s not much pressure on Viktoria to succeed and I think you’ll see that in the first-leg. The last 16 is probably the limit for Plzeň so the tie is something of a free hit. There may be some slight frustrations though as their league game at the weekend against Baník Ostrava was postponed due to the weather, so they won’t have played for ten days. Whether that’s a positive or negative is up for debate, but coming off their own winter break I believe they could have done with that game ahead of a Europa League game.
What do you think the result of the match will be?
Chris Boothroyd: I think they’ll only be one winner and that’ll be Sporting. I’d go with the Portuguese side to win 3-0 at home (with Bas Dost scoring, naturally), before being held to a 1-1 draw in the Czech Republic.
Our thanks to Chris. To follow all things Czech football, be sure to follow Chris on Twitter @czefootball.
To find out more from the Viktoria Plzen fans’ point of view, PortuGOAL asked further questions to Plzen supporter Martin Mrhálek.
There are a lot of very strong teams left in the Europa League. What was the reaction of the fans when they were drawn against Sporting?
Reactions were that the draw came out good. Good in that sense that there is a chance to beat Sporting AND it’s an attractive team too, so it’s a win-win situation. If we fail it will be no shame because on paper Sporting is one level above Plzen but on the other hand, chances are alive to reach the quarter-final. It could be a really good match. Nobody wanted to fly to the cold “east” (Russia, Ukraine) to play with strong but not very attractive teams. I think on this point we have the same opinion as western teams, even though some western leagues maybe consider Czech Republic as “east” :)
The team held a bet before the draw and two players of Plzen particularly wanted to draw Sporting - midfielder Hrosovsky and right-back Reznik.
From the Plzen fans’ point of view, would you prefer a run to the quarter-finals or semi-finals of the Europa League than winning the Czech league title?
The Czech League title definitely, period. Every fan of Plzen will tell you the same thing. Because this year is special. Czech clubs have been working hard on improving the national coefficients in the last few years and the Czech Republic is in 11th position now, and with the new UEFA model this is the position when the Czech league winner will almost certainly go straight into the Champions League group stage.
That’s why the other two big and much wealthier Czech clubs (Slavia Prague, Sparta Prague) spent lot of money before this season - everybody wanted to be 1st. This feels like the most important season in the Czech league in the last 10 years – getting to the Champions League never seemed so “easy”. And the failure of Slavia and Sparta is a very big topic in Czech football, because Slavia bought Danny from Zenit, Sparta Biabiany from Inter Milan etc. and it just didn´t work. Luckily :)
Of course, there is still some way to go, but we will do it. And there is one more crucial thing for Plzen. The owner of Viktoria Plzen isn’t as rich as the owners of Slavia and Sparta – even if they don’t earn Champions League money, they will still have a great amount of money. But for us, it’s crucial financial income. If we succeed, we can be next two years without European cups and still hold onto and attract high-quality players.
Do you expect a lot of Viktoria fans to make the trip to Lisbon on Thursday?
Not many, no. It’s too far for a car trip and quite inconvenient (expensive and no direct flights). My bet is around Plzen 250 fans at Sporting’s stadium, but I can assure you it has nothing to do with fans’ opinion on the quality of Sporting. And I think the number of Portuguese fans at the Doosan arena is going to be similar.
What can Sporting fans who travel to the Doosan Arena for the second leg expect in terms of atmosphere/stadium/home fans etc?
A nice and not big town with some historical sites, the best beer on the world (definitely must recommend the visit to Plzen brewery, it’s awesome, a must-visit for every tourist who likes beer), lots of lovely pubs and friendly Plzen fans. The stadium has was heavily reconstructed a few years ago and of course will be full. We have the stadium without the athletic track (thank God), so all the spectators have close contact with the field and the players. Plzen has peaceful fans and good ultras who support their team right until full time in the match. It was freezing the last 10 days, but it looks like winter time is definitely behind us and it could be around 7°C. I know it´s not much for the Portuguese citizens, but it could be much worse. But definitely don’t underestimate the cold and bring warm clothes :)
Who do you think will win through to the quarter-finals?
This is a really hard question for a Plzen fan. Of course, we believe. If I should say odds right now my bet would be 65% : 35% for Sporting. You know football, you know everything can happen. But I will say one thing. Pavel Vrba is a master of tactics. Recently, after the first leg of Partizan-Plzen played in Belgrade (1:1) he said: “Maybe you journalist expected some great attacking game and you are disappointed (we didn’t play a really good match till the equalizer goal), but I wanted to play the match which gives us the chance in the second leg.” And you look what happened in the second leg [Plzen won 2-0]. I can assure you if we accomplish a solid result at Sporting (for me it’s of course any kind of win, any kind of draw and even a 1-goal loss is OK if we score at least one goal (2-1, 3-2, etc.) you can expect one hell of a game at Doosan Arena.
You have Bas Dost (even though we’re still not sure if he is going to play), impressive numbers, it will be interesting to see how we cover him. The away game will be crucial. I can’t wait for it, tickets secured. I posted my tip for result to my friends a few days ago so I will post it again here, you can laugh, that´s ok. Fans are fans, they always believe :)
- away game 2-2, home game 2-1, Viktoria Plzen goes to quarter-final.
Our thanks to Martin for his informative and entertaining insight. You can follow him on Twitter @Mrhy1.