Hearts suffer narrow first leg defeat to Zurich in Europa League play-off

The Edinburgh side lost 2-1 but remain in the tie ahead of the return leg at Tynecastle.

Hearts lose 2-1 to FC Zurich in Europa League play-off first leg SNS Group

Hearts have lost 2-1 to FC Zurich in the first leg of their Europa League play-off tie.

Lawrence Shankland had put the Premiership side ahead from the penalty spot but the hosts bounced back and goals from Adria Guerrero and Blerim Dzemaili put them in front.

The Swiss champions hold the advantage but Robbie Neilson and his players will have taken confidence from their performance.

While Hearts were aiming to earn a result on foreign soil that could give them a hope of completing the job at Tynecastle next week, Zurich had already conceded a small part of their home advantage. With the club’s stadium in use as a concert venue this week, they had moved the match to St Gallen, 80 km from Zurich.

That meant there was nothing like an intimidating crowd when the game kicked off in torrential rain but any hopes that Hearts could ease into the game were shot when they had to make a change in defence after just six minutes. Craig Halkett appeared to pull a muscle when stretching for the ball and was replaced by Toby Sibbick.

Zurich had a couple of early chances, though nothing that unduly worried Craig Gordon until he needed two attempts to hold a free kick from Blerim Dzemaili, but moments after that shot, Hearts had the opportunity to take the lead.

Nathaniel Atkinson made a move into the Zurich box and Selnaes caught the Hearts player’s ankle with his studs. The penalty was awarded and Lawrence Shankland stepped up to power a low shot into the corner of the net and put his side in front.

Zurich were stung into action and Dzemaili forced an impressive left-hand save from Gordon as they chased an equaliser.  Just after the half hour mark, they got one.

A high ball into the centre should have been dealt with by Atkinson but he headed back towards his own goal and Adria Guerrero spun to hit a clean volley that Gordon had no chance of stopping.

Hearts had barely had time to digest that blow when they found themselves behind. A low cross into the box wasn’t cleared and when it made its way back to Dzemaili he smashed his shot into the top corner.

Barrie McKay carried the fight for Hearts, setting up Jorge Grant with a half-chance and then nearly taking one himself as the visitors looked to regain a foothold but there was no further scoring before half-time.

Michael Smith replaced Atkinson at the break but there was little change in the balance of play. Zurich continued to threaten while Hearts were looking to craft openings and McKay remained the most likely provider.

Zurich had a good opportunity to extend the lead in the 68th minute when Guerrero tried another volley but his wayward shot needed to be much better.

Robbie Neilson introduced Liam Boyce and Alan Forrest to inject fresh legs in attack and Forrest found himself in space immediately but upset Shankland by opting to shoot wildly from wide rather than find the striker, who was well-placed in the centre.

Zurich were playing more conservatively, allowing Hearts to make the play but as time ticked on they were struggling to turn possession into dangerous moments.

The hosts weren’t completely done with attacking though, and a swift counter in the dying minutes forced Gordon to deny Rohner.

Four minutes of added time brought no further scoring, leaving Hearts trailing at the halfway stage but with plenty of optimism ahead of what is sure to be an atmospheric night at Tynecastle next Thursday.

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