Not quite an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime, but certainly a rare chance to mingle with some of European football’s biggest clubs. A 2-1 defeat to FC Zurich in this play-off first leg is no disaster, albeit the Edinburgh club will perhaps feel they should have taken more after scoring first.
Their charter flight flew out of St Gallen last night with players and staff harbouring a touch of disappointment but also a realisation that this tie is theirs for the taking in Scotland. The second leg next Thursday evening promises to be a seismic occasion in front of a raucous Gorgie crowd.
Zurich, the Swiss champions, laboured early in this match and it was no great surprise when they fell behind. Lawrence Shankland’s 22nd-minute penalty gave Hearts a 1-0 advantage, although the hosts claimed control thereafter with two quick goals from left wing-back Adrian Guerrero and midfielder Blerim Dzemaili.
They travel to Tynecastle hoping to capitalise on that lead with a capable forward line. Despite Zurich passing up some decent chances to score a third – often due to Craig Gordon’s superb goalkeeping – the tie remains very much in the balance and Hearts can be quietly confident of getting the result they require next week.
Rainfall in St Gallen was relentless into the evening and rendered the Kybunpark playing surface slick and quick. Zurich engaged in some pre-match mind games at Wednesday’s press conference by announcing that they were without the former Hearts winger Donis Avdijaj because of injury. He started in attack.
The sight of Alan Forrest on the visitors’ substitutes' bench was another surprise given his promising start to the season.
Around 1,000 travelling fans gathered at the west end of a very atmospheric stadium, many of them having partied all afternoon in St Gallen’s beautiful old town centre. A decent din was generated between Jambos at one end and Zurich fanatics at the other despite the ground being considerably less than half full.
The home crowd would have been greater in number had their Stadion Letzigrund been able to stage this match. A concert booking put paid to that, hence this neutral venue 40 miles east. Zurich’s position at the foot of the Swiss Super League perhaps also contributed to the attendance. It was another advantage for Hearts to try and seize on.
First there was adversity to digest. Defender Craig Halkett sustained a suspected hamstring injury after only five minutes and was replaced by Toby Sibbick.
The early stages didn’t suggest anything to overawe those in maroon. Gordon needed two attempts to collect Dzemaili’s powerfully-driven free-kick from 25 yards, but Hearts were able to pass their way forward on several occasions to get at Zurich’s pregnable defence.
One of those forways led to a penalty just after the 20-minute mark. Shankland fed midfielder Cammy Devlin and he supplied the advanced Nathaniel Atkinson on the right. Atkinson entered the penalty area and cut inside his opposite wing-back Guerrero, who caught the Australian on the shin with a tackle.
Polish referee Bartosz Pawel Frankowski awarded a penalty and cautioned Antonio Marchesano for protesting. Shankland made light of the delay as Atkinson received treatment. The striker rifled the spot-kick low past goalkeeper Yanick Brecher and the away end erupted in delirium.
In a Swiss town which dates back to 612 when a santuary was established by an Irish missionary monk named Gallus, it was Hearts playing with a swagger at that very moment.
Gordon produced an outstanding save high to his left to thwart Dzemaili moments later, with Zurich breaking at high speed and Hearts retreating. That was the danger for the Edinburgh side after moving 1-0 ahead and it helped their opponents quickly overturn the deficit.
On 32 minutes Guerrero levelled. A textbook long ball forward from goalkeeper Brecher wasn’t dealt with by the backpedalling Atkinson, who headed into the air. The ball dropped for Guerrero to volley impressively beyond Gordon and atone for the earlier penalty concession.
Two minutes later, the attack-minded Dzemaili put the hosts 2-1 ahead. Hearts did not clear successive crosses into their penalty area and, when Peter Haring stuck out a toe to connect with the second delivery from Guerrero, the ball landed with Dzemaili. The Swiss internationalist dispatched a rising shot high into the net.
A precious advantage had been rather cheaply thrown away and the Hearts players were visibly frustrated. Michael Smith replaced Atkinson for the second half and Kye Rowles managed an important block on Avdijaj’s shot shortly after play recommenced.
Zurich probed for another opening and Guerrero’s acrobatic volley from Avdijaj’s 67th-minute cross bounced past Gordon’s right post. As time progressed, tiredness became a factor for both sides but Hearts’ passing improved with Smith shunted into a holding midfield role.
They tried to run down the clock by keeping possession but lost it tamely on 89 minutes. Zurich substitute Chieck Conde fed fellow replacement Fabian Rohner, who sprinted clear. Gordon emerged with another priceless block.
That save and several others by the Scotland No.1 during the 90 minutes makes next week’s return leg far more appealing from a maroon perspective.