“There have been clubs playing in Europe who are not the size of Hearts. You want to be in the Europa League. You want to compete with the best teams.”
That was the rallying call from Peter Haring as Hearts prepare for a play-off second leg that could confirm the latest milestone on the journey they are plotting – from Scottish Championship to European regulars.
In analysing the 2-1 first leg defeat suffered in Switzerland last week, two distinct camps seemed to form.
Some believed they had seen a passive and underperforming Scottish side lucky not to be beaten by more.
Others saw a team that suffered a costly ten-minute period under the cosh, but which recovered to keep the tie alive.
It is true that Hearts rode their luck at times against FC Zurich and when the Swiss champions netted two goals in four minutes to take a 2-1 lead, it was easy to fear the worst.
After all, it was only seven days previously that we had seen Dundee United blown to smithereens by AZ Alkmaar under similar circumstances.
But the truth was that the double blow actually seemed to bring Robbie Neilson’s team out of their shell.
They became braver on the ball and the knock-on effect emboldened Neilson to throw on an extra attacker to chase the equaliser.
It left the capital side more vulnerable to counter-attacks, but they weathered those chances and know that overcoming a one-goal deficit in front of their own sold-out stadium is an achievable challenge.
Confidence is in no short supply around Tynecastle after their excellent return season in the Premiership saw them finish third – by a distance of 13 points – and finish runners-up in the Scottish Cup.
That is further fuelled by the dangerous front four that Neilson has built over the summer, with Barrie McKay, Alan Forrest and Liam Boyce feeding Lawrence Shankland in the penalty area.
Craig Halkett is likely to be missing with a hamstring strain, but the recruitment of Australia international defender Kye Rowles has given the squad a reassuring depth in the backline.
There is a fine line between justified confidence and unrealistic expectation though, and anybody who assumed the boys in maroon could strut into Switzerland and take down their reigning champions would fall into the latter category.
Franco Foda’s outfit have quality and top-level experience – 69 Swiss cap Blerim Džemaili, formerly of Napoli, Parma, Bologna and Galatasaray, found the net last week; 18-year-old Italy international striker Willy Gnonto is reportedly wanted by clubs across Europe, including Leeds United; Barcelona academy product Adria Guerrero, Norway international Ole Selnæs, and Benin striker Tosin Aiyegun are all high-level players at their disposal.
Zurich showed themselves to be useful in possession, able to break lines with fast one-touch passing, and they showed a streetwise attitude in playing the referee and buying free-kicks against an occasionally naïve Hearts side.
What’s at stake?
The prize is a place in the Europa League groups, with the consolation of guaranteed Europa Conference League action for the losing club.
The added prestige alone drives the Hearts players to achieve the former. Also at stake is greater prize money – a guaranteed £3.1m in the Europa compared to the £2.5m in the Conference.
The Europa pays out £535,000 per win and £178,000 for a draw. Conference participation rakes in £424,000 a victory and £141,000 per draw.
The clubs Hearts could be pitted against in the Europa League include Rangers’ Champions League victims PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Sociedad, Dynamo Kiev and Roma.
In the Conference League, there are still some big draws, including Villarreal, Slavia Prague and West Ham United.
No matter the play-off result there will be huge nights ahead under the Tynecastle lights. And what a role this steep, tight cauldron of west Edinburgh will play this evening.
Sold-out since Saturday, the 20,000-capacity ground will not have seen a European occasion like this since Liverpool came to town under Brendan Rodgers in 2012.
The first UEFA tie to be played in EH11 since the new main stand was completed in 2017, it is renowned as an arena that rises to the big matches and delivers a deafening atmosphere.
Allied with its narrow pitch, Tynecastle is purpose-built to knock visiting teams off their stride.
The first goal will be crucial. If the hosts get it, the sheer force of the home crowd could help carry Hearts all the way to the Europa League groups – where they believe they now belong.
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