Liverpool did what was needed to be done in a very uneventful game in the Czech Republic on Thursday night, holding out for a dull 0-0 that puts them in control of this Europa League tie.
It was Kenny Dalglish’s first European match as manager of Liverpool FC.
With no fixture this weekend, it was a fairly strong Liverpool line-up. Dalglish handed a start to young defender Danny Wilson, while Sotirios Kyrgiakos also got a run out.
Steven Gerrard and Daniel Agger were left on Merseyside nursing injuries, and new £23m striker Luis Suarez was ineligible to play.
Joe Cole made a rare appearance, coming on for the injured Fabio Aurelio just after the half hour mark whilst David Ngog was given a chance up front – but failed to inspire.
Throughout the game Liverpool looked comfortable and in control of proceedings, with Pepe Reina troubled little except for a late Kamil Vacek freekick that flashed low accross his goal.
The Reds now take Sparta back to Anfield next week with the Europa League still a very realistic chance of silverwear.
Match Report from BBC Sport
Solid Liverpool did not sparkle in Kenny Dalglish’s first European match in charge of the club but remain well placed for the Europa League‘s last 16.
The visitors dominated early possession but failed to create any clear chances as Sparta’s Manuel Pamic went close.
Glen Johnson poked a shot just wide after half-time but Liverpool, without injured captain Steven Gerrard, never looked like scoring in a drab match.
Yet they held tight late on as Kamil Vacek cracked a low drive wide.
On a night when temperatures dipped below freezing in the Czech capital, Dalglish’s developing team – now unbeaten in their last seven matches – started brightly as every player sought to touch the ball.
Sparta, though, looked distinctly like a team who had just come out of hibernation having not played a competitive match following a near three-month winter break.
Though Liverpool took control, without ineligible Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez or talismanic Gerrard, they lacked penetration.
Lone striker David Ngog nearly burst though chasing Raul Meireles’ instant attempted through-ball but was flagged offside while the French forward committed a foul when Fabio Aurelio released him.
Andrej Keric then whipped a high cross-shot over the bar with keeper Pepe Reina untroubled.
And Liverpool – still getting to grips with a more flexible tactical system than the one used by former boss Roy Hodgson – started to be opened up as a dangerous corner from Kamil Vacek’s dangerous corner was followed up with a low shot which screamed just wide.
England right-back Glen Johnson was caught confused as Martin Abena threaded a superb pass inside him for Manuel Pamic to fire in a powerful shot from an acute angle.
But Reina palmed away the most clear cut chance of the first-half with no home strikers on hand to capitalise on any rebound.
Pamic soon needed treatment for a bloody nose, after which Johnson then drove at the Sparta defence but failed to get his shot off as the visitors continued to attempt to build passing moves from the back.
Dirk Kuyt was unlucky with a searching cross-field ball for Maxi Rodriguez after nice link-up play between Ngog and the always-alert Meireles.
But Sparta nearly found a way through after 30 minutes when Pamic skied a chance after Reina had flapped at a cross.
Marek Matejovsky then found the ball at his feet but when he tried to place a right-footed into the corner of the net Sotirios Kyrgiakos made an important block.
Midfielder Joe Cole trotted on for the injured Fabio Aurelio in the 36th minute before nearly setting up Ngog sharply, but his shot in the box was blocked by former West Ham United centre-back Tomas Repka.
Both Repka – who has been sent off 18 times in his career – and Ngog were shown yellow cards for a needless clash on the touchline, though the punishment for the Liverpool player appeared harsh.
Just before half-time the ever-industrious Kuyt should have done better with a Ngog knock-down but the Dutchman failed to connect on the spin just six yards out.
The slow pace of the match did not alter as the second half got under way.
Looking more comfortable than before the break, Johnson impressively slalomed his way to the right byeline to stand a cross up but Jaromir Blazek leapt to pluck the ball from Ngog’s cocked head.
Cameroonian striker Leonard Kweuke then headed wide as Sparta carved out a decent opening.
Johnson again went close soon after but, after picking up a long pass on the right wing, he cut inside before trying to poke a curled shot inside the post with the outside of his right boot when a left-footed shot appeared the better option.
With 15 minutes remaining and a goalless draw looking like a good result to take into the second leg, Reina showed superb anticipation to make smart low save from Kweuke’s spin-and-shot from 10 yards.
Keeping a clean sheet looked paramount as centre back Martin Skrtel replaced Ngog late on.
Yet this defensive ploy only invited pressure as 18-year-old midfielder Vacek jinked free outside the box before lashing a shot just past the post as Reina scrambled across his goal.
The second leg takes place at Anfield on 24 February with Lech Poznan or Braga awaiting the winner of the last-32 tie.
Team Line-ups and Substitutions
Sparta Prague: Blazek, Repka, Brabec, Abena, Pamic, Matejovsky (Pekhart 90+2), Kusnir, Vacek, Leonard Kweuke, Kadlec (Zeman 89), Keric (Sionko 73).
Substitutes: Zitka, Bondoa, Husek, Podany, Sionko, Zeman, Pekhart.
Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Aurelio (Cole 38), Kyrgiakos, Wilson, Carragher, Meireles, Maxi, Lucas, Kuyt, Ngogy (Skrtel 84).
Substitutes: Gulacsi, Kelly, Skrtel, Cole, Conor Coady, Pacheco, Jovanovic.