Tepid display spoils Dalglish's European debut with Liverpool

Sparta Prague 0 Liverpool 0
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The Independent Football

As comebacks go, it was more Michael Schumacher squeezing himself into the cockpit of a Ferrari once more rather than Muhammad Ali striding through Madison Square Garden to take on Joe Frazier punch for punch. Nevertheless, Kenny Dalglish's return to European football after an absence of 14 years was satisfactory enough, if only in terms of the result. Memorable it was not.

Goalless draws away from home can be dangerous things but Liverpool would back themselves to win the second leg at Anfield to reach the stage of the Europa League when the finish line can finally be seen on the horizon.

If Roy Hodgson succeeded in anything during his brief time on Merseyside it was in this competition – even providing an authentic great European night in the sweeping away of Napoli. Qualification from the group stages was achieved with a series of draws away from home and this was as tedious as anything Hodgson oversaw. Only one of the four members of Liverpool's FA Youth Cup side that Dalglish took to Prague made the cut and the lesson Conor Coady would have learned was how to keep warm on the bench.

For Sparta Prague to have come through the tie, you assumed they would have to win their home leg and although Leony Kweuke threatened with a powerful header and a shot on the turn that came towards Pepe Reina through the acrid smoke of flares, they did not force a breakthrough their efforts probably deserved. However, they came no closer than a fierce drive from Kamil Vacek that slammed against an advertising hoarding a yard wide of Reina's goal. It was not nearly enough.

Liverpool barely threw a punch and for the last seven minutes they operated without a striker but they would have settled for a stalemate. Dalglish would back himself at Anfield; he always does.

During Liverpool's long European exile, the years in which Dalglish steered them to three championships, the questions were always, how would they have fared against the great Milan sides spearheaded by Marco van Basten or the Barcelona "Dream Team" fashioned by Johan Cruyff? Now, very belatedly and very unexpectedly, Dalglish has been given the opportunity to take his beloved club on to the European stage but the nature of the question has changed. Could Liverpool overcome Sparta Prague in the round of 32 of the Europa League?

It should, in theory have been straightforward. Their domestic form has improved dramatically under Dalglish while Sparta Prague had not played a competitive game of football since drawing here with CSKA Moscow two months ago. The last time they had scored a goal against English opposition in the tight, symmetrical confines of the Letna Stadium had been in December 1983 when Watford had been routed on a frozen pitch.

Last night, Graham Taylor, who managed Watford that night, watched from the television gantry while Jozef Chovanec, who had scored the opening goal, had a closer view, from the manager's seat in the dugout.

Neither man had much to watch. With their breath visible in the frozen night air and playing on a scuffed pitch, neither side seemed able to rouse themselves, although Sparta were both more dangerous and more inventive. Returning from a winter break had hardly hindered Shakhtar Donetsk when scoring three times against Roma in the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday night but last night the only saves either goalkeeper were required to make in a moribund first half were by Reina.

Too often Liverpool's movement became clogged up in central midfield with Joe Cole, who hitherto had been cast into the shadows by Dalglish, appearing as early as the 36th minute. Tomas Repka, now 37 and five years away from his West Ham days was prepared to mix it with any Liverpool player who broke though and his status in the Letna is such that when he made his first routine clearance from a Raul Meireles corner, they lit a flare in his honour behind the banners marked "Ultras Sparta". It said something about the quality of what was to follow.

Sparta Prague (4-1-3-1-1): Blazek; Kusnir, Repka, Brabec, Pamic; Vacek; Keric (Sionko, 73), Matejovsky, Kadlec (Zeman, 89); Biholong; Kweuke. Substitutes not used Zitka (gk), Podany, Bondoa, Husek, Pekhart.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Wilson; Lucas Leiva, Aurelio (Cole, 36); Kuyt, Meireles, Rodriguez; Ngog (Skrtel, 84). Substitutes not used Gulacsi (gk), Pacheco, Jovanovic, Kelly, Coady.

Referee F Meyer (Germany).