Sports Mole previews Thursday’s Europa League clash between Galatasaray and Sparta Prague, including predictions, team news and possible lineups.
On account of their failure to prolong their Champions League adventure, Galatasaray begin their bid for Europa League stardom on Thursday, hosting Sparta Prague in the first leg of their knockout round playoff.
While Okan Buruk‘s men placed third in their Champions League section, their Czech visitors were runners-up in Europa League Group C, thus missing out on a direct route into the last 16.
Frequent occupants of a place at Europe’s top table over the past decade, Galatasaray had to come through three two-legged qualifying ties to even reach the group stage of the 2023-24 Champions League, where Copenhagen awaited alongside two behemoths in the form of Bayern Munich and Manchester United.
Taking four points from their two fixtures with the sub-par Red Devils put Buruk’s men firmly in contention for a ticket to the knockouts as they headed into the final matchweek level on points with Copenhagen, but a 1-0 loss on Danish soil condemned the Turkish Super Lig powerhouses to a shot at glory in the continent’s secondary competition.
One-time winners of the UEFA Cup back in the 1999-2000 edition, where they got the better of Arsenal in the final, each of Galatasaray’s last five attempts to progress from the Champions League group stage have now ended in failure, and they have not made it past the last 16 of the Europa League since its rebranding.
In all but one of their Champions League group matches, Buruk’s team both found the back of the net while failing to keep the opposition out – the aberration being their blank in the one-goal loss to Copenhagen – but that Scandinavian suffering represents their last loss in any tournament.
Indeed, Thursday’s hosts have since been largely irrepressible in domestic action, winning each of their eight fixtures across Super Lig and Turkish Cup action, strolling past Istanbul Basaksehir 2-0 on Saturday to open up a two-point lead over Fenerbahce at the top of the table.
Galatasaray’s comfortable beating of Basaksehir also represented a ninth successive home victory for the Turkish Super Lig leaders, leaving the odds firmly stacked against Sparta Prague, who edged into the knockout rounds by the skin of their teeth.
Joining Rangers, Real Betis and Aris Limassol in an intriguing Group C of the Europa League, the Reds were ostensibly set to settle for Europa Conference League football for the second half of the campaign, but back-to-back beatings of Betis and Aris in the final two gameweeks saw Sparta edge out the Spaniards by one point for second place.
Rangers – whose matchday six win over Betis allowed Sparta to creep into the top two – only finished one point better off than Brian Priske‘s side too, but only one have the 13-time Czech champions advanced beyond the knockout round playoffs, losing to Villarreal in the 2015-16 quarter-finals.
Similarly to Galatasaray, the Reds also resume continental duties amid a sensational winning streak, having triumphed in their final seven competitive fixtures of 2023 before extending that golden sequence to eight matches at the weekend, easing to a 3-0 success over MFK Karvina.
The reigning First League champions are five points clear of bitter foes Slavia Prague in first place, and two of their previous four meetings with Galatasaray have ended in victory, although the most recent clash – a 1997-98 Champions League group-stage match – saw the Turkish side prevail 2-0, a fixture in which current manager Buruk was an unused substitute.
Galatasaray form (all competitions):
Sparta Prague Europa League form:
Sparta Prague form (all competitions):
Galatasaray’s diverse squad is in relatively good nick at this moment in time, but on-loan Chelsea attacker Hakim Ziyech will not be involved in the knockout round playoffs due to an ankle injury, which he sustained at the Africa Cup of Nations while turning out for Morocco.
Centre-back Abdulkerim Bardakci is also struggling with a hamstring issue, leaving Buruk uncertain whether he will make the cut this week, and a check must also be made on midfielder Sergio Oliveira, who is nursing a muscular injury.
Kerem Akturkoglu and Victor Nelsson were both withdrawn injured in the meeting with Basaksehir too, although Buruk is confident that both men will shake off their issues in time for the first leg.
Since their unsuccessful Champions League exploits, Bayern-bound Sacha Boey has been replaced by Serge Aurier and Derrick Kohn in defence, although the latter – an arrival from Hannover 96 – was not included in the hosts’ Europa League squad.
As for Sparta, right-back Andreas Vindheim is out for the long-term due to unspecified problems, while efficient winger Lukas Haraslin did not take part in the beating of Karvina and will seemingly sit this one out as well.
The visitors are otherwise in good health for the first leg, where Martin Vitik – who started five of his side’s six group-stage contests – should be recalled to a three-man defensive wall.
Galatasaray possible starting lineup:
Muslera; Ayhan, Sanchez, Nelsson, Kutlu; Demirbay, Torreira; Yilmaz, Mertens, Zaha; Icardi
Sparta Prague possible starting lineup:
Vindahl; Vitik, Krejci, Panak; Preciado, Kairinen, Laci, Zeleny; Karabec, Kuchta, Birmancevic
We say: Galatasaray 3-1 Sparta Prague
Confidence is flowing through the veins of both sets of players right now, but with Sparta Prague only just returning to competitive action last weekend after a period of friendlies, the visitors may be at a slight disadvantage.
Coupled with the fact that Galatasaray often flaunted their offensive prowess in the Champions League, a Lions contingent brimming with talented attackers – some of whom boast plentiful European experience – should come good in a dominant first-leg display.
For data analysis of the most likely results, scorelines and more for this match please click here.