Reds hold Sparta in dour draw

Kenny Dalglish waited 9,394 days to get the chance to manage

Liverpool in Europe but after a turgid Europa League draw in Prague

he must have wondered why he looked forward to it so much. The

59-year-old missed out on continental competition in his first

spell as Reds boss because of the ban on English clubs after the

Heysel disaster. Despite the significance of his debut, this

last-32 first-leg match in the Czech Republic is unlikely to live

long in Dalglish’s or anyone else’s memory. Goalkeeper Jose Reina

was Liverpool’s best – and busiest – player with a few good saves,

but even then he was not severely tested. The visitors’ play was

disjointed and lacked a cutting edge but crucially they kept a

clean sheet and Dalglish will be hopeful next week’s home leg, when

captain Steven Gerrard should be available after a groin problem,

will provide greater satisfaction. In the biting cold of the

Generali Arena the game never really got going and although

Liverpool tried to gain control by holding on to possession they

never managed to make any ground by doing so. In fact, it was

Sparta who created the few chances, most of which were created from

wide positions as full-backs Ondrej Kusnir, on the right, and the

particularly effective Manuel Pamic advanced at regular intervals.

That was in contrast to Liverpool’s two wide defenders, with Glen

Johnson, back in his more familiar right-sided role, and Danny

Wilson, a centre-back playing on the left, rarely getting the

opportunity to go forward. Pamic gave Johnson problems in the first

half and almost capitalised to great effect in the 17th minute.

Martin Abena slid a pass inside the England defender and Pamic

raced into the penalty area to drill a low shot from a narrow angle

which Reina parried to safety. Even the normally unflappable Spain

international was not immune to the general untidiness which

littered Liverpool’s play and when he could only parry Kusnir’s

deep cross into the path of Pamic he was relived to see the

defender blaze over with his weaker right foot. Sotirios Kyrgiakos

was next to the Reds’ rescue, putting in a diving block to halt

former Reading midfielder Marek Matejovsky’s shot as it travelled

goalwards. With a lack of central midfielders, having left Gerrard

and expectant father Christian Poulsen at home, the last thing

Dalglish needed was to see Fabio Aurelio forced off with an injury

in the first half. It prompted a reshuffle with Raul Meireles

withdrawn from his advanced role, from where he had scored five

goals in six previous matches, to allow Joe Cole to come on. The

second half was little different from what had gone before except

for Liverpool enjoying slightly more possession. But the successful

passing game which had been so evident in their six-match unbeaten

Barclays Premier League run never really got going. Sparta

continued to pose the greater threat, however, and Leony Kweuke

headed just wide from range on the hour. Liverpool’s best chance

came with 20 minutes to go when Lucas Leiva’s lofted pass picked

out Johnson on the right of the penalty area. He weaved inside but

instead of shooting with his left foot – with which he has scored

some screamers from range – he opted for the outside of his right

and poked the ball past the far post. The match was held up for a

couple of minutes after a flare let off by Sparta fans behind

Reina’s goal clouded the pitch in thick smoke and there would have

been few complaints had it blanked out the rest of the game. When

play did resume Reina had to be alert to stop Kweuke’s shot on the

turn from a corner, while Matejovsky’s 25-yard effort curled just

wide of the goalkeeper’s right-hand post. Dalglish switched to a

back three for the last six minutes, with Slovakian Martin Skrtel

receiving a predictably hostile welcome from the Czech crowd when

he replaced Ngog. Kamil Vacek almost snatched a winner with a

long-range strike which whistled past the upright but Liverpool

held on for a clean sheet which makes life slightly easier for them

in a week’s time.