Van Dijk calls hosts “brave” as Liverpool brush Sparta aside

Thursday was a red letter day for Czech soccer fans, with Premier League leaders Liverpool coming to Prague to take on Sparta in the Europa League. Sparta did give the crowd plenty to cheer about – but were still beaten 5:1 as Liverpool made the gulf in class pay.

Alexis Mac Allister  | Photo: Ondřej Deml,  ČTK

A packed Letná stadium created an electric atmosphere on Thursday evening as Sparta Prague welcomed Liverpool in the round of 16 in the Europa League, European soccer’s second-tier competition.

However, the Czech titleholders’ hopes of causing an upset against the English giants were soon deflated.

Alexis Mac Allister was brought down for a penalty in the opening minutes and converted the spot kick in front of an extremely loud Sparta home end.

Darwin Núñez | Photo: Ondřej Deml,  ČTK

By half-time Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez had scored with two wonder strikes to make it 3:0.

A Liverpool own-goal just after the break gave the home fans something to cheer about but the visitors were unruffled, scoring twice more through Diaz and Szoboszlai to make it 5:1 by full-time.

Sparta had a string of decent chances but may ultimately have paid the price for being overly attack-minded. Liverpool captain Virgil van Dijk hinted at as much when asked about the Czechs’ approach.

Virgil Van Dijk | Photo: Ondřej Deml,  ČTK

“Brave. I think it’s high risk – hopefully, for them, high reward, but obviously for them today the reward wasn’t there. I still respect what they’re doing. It’s a good club, good fans. And we will see them next week, at home.”

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp also commented on Sparta’s first leg game plan.

“Sparta took risks. We punished them for that in other moments. We scored wonderful goals, we had really good moments in the game. We’re not the types to think we just come here and it’s a walk in the park. It was obviously the opposite of a walk in the park. We had to work a lot. We didn’t expect an easy game and it was not, but it was a good result.”

Caoimhín Kelleher | Photo: Ondřej Deml,  ČTK

The visitors’ goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher was kept very busy by Sparta, making a string of saves, and was predictably satisfied with the outcome.

“You can’t ask much more from an away game in Europe: scoring five goals. To be fair I thought they played quite well. They obviously caused us a few problems. I thought they played very well, we were just probably more clinical and were able to take our chances.”

Ladislav Krejčí | Photo: Vít Šimánek,  ČTK

Sparta travel to Anfield Road for the second leg next Thursday, with virtually zero chance of progressing. Still, Sparta captain Ladislav Krejčí said his team could hold their heads up high.

“That’s the difference with top class players at world level. The positives are that there were passages where we managed to play our way. I dare say that two years ago we wouldn’t have played like that. We need to take from this experience so next time the gap is smaller next time we take on the very best.”