Hearts boss Robbie Neilson says his side can’t give up their hopes of reaching the knockout stages of the Europa Conference League, even though the odds are heavily stacked against them following a 5-1 defeat to Fiorentina.
The loss in Florence leaves Hearts in third place in Group A, four points behind the Serie A side with two games left to play.
Hearts would need to beat Latvian side RFS and group leaders Istanbul Basaksehir, while hoping Fiorentina don’t pick up more than one point from six.
Neilson says the team has to keep that target as they go into their next games, even though it looks likely their European adventure will end in three weeks’ time.
“We have got to believe that,” the Hearts manager told BT Sport. “We have got Rigas at home in a fortnight and then we go to Istanbul.
“It’s a home game and we would like to take three points from that and set us up for the last game of the group stage. We have got to keep believing.
“We had an absolutely unbelievable fan base here – 4,000 – and even at 4-0 they are singing their hearts out. I think it really pushed the players on and they deserved to see that energy.
“Although we are really disappointed for the first half, I am proud of the players second half because they showed that belief. Hopefully it’s a learning curve and they take that forward into the next games.”
Hearts had hit the post in the first minute in the Stadio Artemio Franchi but Fiorentina turned on the style to race to a 4-0 half-time lead. Stephen Humphrys scored in the second half before Fiorentina scored a fifth to comfortably see out the game.
“It’s small margins at the start, we hit the post and don’t take the rebound,” Neilson said. “But we were playing against a very, very good team and I felt first half we didn’t get close enough, weren’t aggressive enough in the contact.
“We found ourselves 4-0 down but to the players’ credit we were a lot more aggressive in our press and played much better second half. Fiorentina are a very strong team, very physical and we didn’t match that first half. Second half we did.
“We had words at half time, when you play at this level, a lot of the time it’s technical and tactical but it’s also mental as well, you have to believe when you go into contacts that you are going to win the ball.
“When you get close to people you have got to put them under pressure and I felt second half we did that much, much more.”