We saw our 100% record in this season's Premier League International Cup come to an end as Tomas Schanelec’s strike handed Sparta Prague victory at a chilly Meadow Park.
In a game of few chances for either team, the half-time replacement drilled home what proved to be the winner on 54 minutes as Sparta continued to impress in this season’s competition, chalking up their third win on English soil without conceding.
In a meeting of the sides first and second in Group B, Mehmet Ali made six changes to the side that won emphatically at Swansea City the weekend before, and after a quiet start, the first major opportunity come our way just after the first half’s midway point.
Joel Ideho did well to regain possession in his own third, and found Josh Robinson who sprung a counter-attack via an excellent through-ball to Kido Taylor-Hart. The winger raced into the box, and forced Jakub Tuma to make a good save with his feet.
However the Czechs also improved as the half progressed, and after Adam Goljan had a couple of sights of goal that failed to seriously trouble Hubert Graczyk, the Polish shot-stopper had to be at his best when Daniel Horak was picked out by Petr Pudhorocky’s cutback, but Graczyk stuck out a foot to divert the full-back’s powerful blast.
That ensured the sides went into the break level, but parity lasted just nine minutes before the visitors got themselves in front. Goljan saw a corner cleared back to him, and his second attempt forced Graczkk to claw the ball away from his goalline, but Schanelec pounced to hook the loose ball in.
That saw Sparta tighten up as they looked to preserve their advantage, and that allowed us opportunities to try and find an equaliser. Idaho curled a shot from the edge of the area into the arms of Tuma, before Mauro Bandeira fired a free-kick just wide.
The lively Ideho then whipped an effort narrowly off target that looked destined to curl into the bottom corner, and Tuma got down well to deny George Lewis deep into stoppage time to ensure he kept a third-straight clean sheet for Sparta in the competition.
All of the match's best moments have been captured in our gallery below:
Speaking after the final whistle, boss Mehmet Ali relished the evening as a great opportunity for some of our younger Gunners but recognised there was "plenty of work to do in training" to build on the learnings.
"In the last five minutes, I saw the boys really trying to get into the box, get crosses in, make aggressive runs in behind their backline," he said. "It was just a shame that we didn't do that earlier on in the game, but there were some positive performances. I felt we had good control, our structure was good and we had a good rhythm, but we just lacked quality in the final third."
Defender Zach Awe shared a similar take on the game with positive takeaways: "I felt that we did well playing out from the back. They did press man for man a lot but our style of play did beat them higher up the pitch."
"You know, the game's won in both boxes and unfortunately, they put theirs away and we didn't," Awe added. "That's football. We'll go next week and hopefully rectify the mistakes we made today."
What it means
We have been leapfrogged by Sparta at the top of the Group B table, with our final game of this stage coming against PSV Eindhoven in February, as we aim to secure a top-two berth to progress to the next round.
Arsenal: Graczyk, Robinson (Ferdinand 76), Awe, Monlouis (Roberts 63), Quesada-Thorn, Henry-Francis (I. Oulad M’hand 89), Ibrahim, Bandeira, Taylor-Hart (Kamara 89), Ideho, Vigar (Lewis 76). Subs not used: Rojas, Brown.
Sparta Prague: Tuma, Vana, Kukucka, Vecerka, Horak, Pudhorocky (Gedeon 75), Jonas (Sevinsky 90), Kastanek, Ambler (Lehocky 63), Goljan, Turyna (Schanelec 46). Subs not used: Nalezinek, Hodous.
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