Liverpool claim turgid draw
Liverpool secured a goalless draw in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 clash with Sparta Prague after a desperately drab encounter at the AXA Arena.
Kenny Dalglish was overseeing his first European clash as Liverpool manager, against a side who were playing their first competitive fixture in over two months due to the Czech league's winter break.
What ensued was a turgid, uninspiring match, distinctly lacking in free-flowing play and positive outlook, with Liverpool unable to muster a single shot on target all game as the Premier League side defended stoutly to settle quite contentedly for a stalemate ahead of the second leg at Anfield.
Dalglish made three changes from the side which drew 1-1 with Wigan on Saturday as David Ngog, Danny Wilson and Sotirios Kyrgiakos were handed starting berths, and the visitors began the game in assured fashion.
All the pre-match talk concerned the 16-year-old prodigy Raheem Sterling who ended up not being included in the matchday squad, but it was another teenager, Danny Wilson, who saw a lot of the ball as Liverpool dominated the early possession, albeit in a less than adventurous fashion.
Neither goalkeeper was called into action in the opening 15 minutes as Sparta sat back very deep inside their half, much to the dismay and frustration of the home fans, who implored the hosts to show more urgency and attacking intent.
But the first clear-cut chance of the match fell to Sparta in the 18th minute as Reina parried a fizzing shot from Manuel Pamic wide; the Sparta midfielder hurtled down the left as he latched on to an incisive through ball from Martin Abena and drove a low shot towards the far post, only for the Liverpool keeper to palm the ball to safety.
Ondrej Kusnir outstripped Wilson down the Sparta right, before he tumbled enthusiastically to the floor on the edge of the Liverpool penalty area, but the referee showed the vehement appeals utter disdain on the half hour mark.
Reina spilled a high ball lofted into the Liverpool penalty area by Marek Matejovsky as he attempted to snaffle it under pressure from two Sparta players, but Pamic blasted his shot over the bar recklessly from the edge of the Liverpool box with the keeper out of position.
Dalglish made an enforced change in the 38th minute as Fabio Aurelio departed the scene gingerly, and Joe Cole was promptly introduced, and the midfielder immediately threaded a through ball into the path of Ngog, whose shot was blocked away by Erich Brabec inside his own box.
Liverpool edged the possession after the restart, just as they did in the first half, but it was pretty turgid stuff as neither side could muster any inspiration or decisive creativity in the final third.
In a second half devoid of ideas, there was the occasional opening: Ngog strode clear of Brabec down the left for Liverpool, but his cut back for Maxi Rodriguez from the byline was misplaced, and another chance was squandered.
Glen Johnson produced a bright run to liven things up in the 69th minute, cutting inside from the right and drilling a low shot agonisingly wide of the far post off his weaker left foot, but Jaromir Blazek was not overly troubled.
Reina halted proceedings as he prepared to take a goal kick to complain bitterly with the referee about the standard of the ball, but it could not represent sufficient excuse for the poor quality of the game. Next, a flurry of intrusive flares forced a further delay as the referee was forced to stop play while the engulfing smoke slowly cleared.
Reina was again on hand to make a smart reflex save in the 77th minute as Kusnir floated over a devilish corner from the left, and Kweuke swivelled and shot impressively on the turn, but the Spaniard was equal to it and saved diving down low to his left.
As the match slowly petered out in the closing stages, Dalglish signalled his intent by replacing the ineffectual Ngog with defender Martin Skrtel, and any faint suggestion that either side was going for the win was extinguished.
The tie is effectively poised on a clean slate with it goalless going into the second leg, but Liverpool are the best placed with the stage set for a more enterprising encounter at Anfield on February 24.