A new era at Hearts began in a defeat as Robbie Neilson’s first match as head coach ended with a 2-0 win for a very classy Ludogorets Razgrad outfit, further soured by a red card to Scott Robinson.
Scorers: Ludogorets Razgrad - Costa (66), Zlatinski (pen 69)
The Jambos must be credited for a diligent display against the exceedingly wealthy and gifted Bulgarian champions, who seemed positively flooded with talented Brazilians.
Hearts held their own for the first half but, following the customary changes at the interval, Ludogorets, title winners in their homeland for the past three years, turned the screw.
Marcelo Costa opened the scoring after 66 minutes with a close range deflected shot which left Jack Hamilton with little hope. And minutes later the lead was doubled from the penalty spot, with Ludogorets skipper Zlatko Zlatinski converting with consummate ease.
Despite the result, the evening would have been considered a success if not for the dismissal of Robinson, given his marching orders after picking up two yellow cards for rash challenges during an oddly ill-tempered cameo in the closing stages.
Hearts handed starting debuts to Neil Alexander, Alim Ozturk and Morgaro Gomis. James Keatings and trialist Lee Currie, formerly of city rivals Hibs, would enter the fray later among the raft of half-time replacements.
It should have been no surprise to see Ludogorets emerge with more vigour. After all, they have been back in training since early June and had already comfortably dispatched Steaua Bucharest during pre-season.
Brazilian playmaker Wanderson was a joy, gliding across the pitch and constantly seeking to find a killer pass, while Holland youth international Jeroen Lumu, just 19, was a threat with his tricky and direct running.
And it was Lumu who forced Alexander into a near-post block with minutes on the clock.
Hearts’ new director of football Craig Levein watched from a vantage point on the touchline, but allowed Neilson free reign in the dugout.
And they saw Ludogorets No 1 Ivan Cvorovic forced to be on his toes to smother the ball at the feet of Beith following an incisive through-pass form Jamie Walker before, moments later, Alexander stopped another Lumu drive.
Ludogorets’ inevitable domination of possession was, if nothing else, ensuring Gomis and Ozturk were stretched in their first outing with Hearts, with Gomis working diligently and the Turkish defender cutting a classy figure at the back.
Of the new faces, however, Alexander impressed the most and showed all his experience to marshall his back line as well as making some smart stops.
And the former Scotland keeper came to the rescue once more mid-way through the first half, stooping low to deny a powerful Wanderson drive from inside the box.
Zlatinski then thrashed a ferocious effort inches wide of the post on the cusp of half-time.
It would be wrong to say Hearts made wholesale changes at half-time. Rather, an entirely different team emerged for the second 45.
So, it was no shock when the game lost some of its flow.
However, Ludogorets were evidently stronger as the game wore on, and Costa reacted quickest in the box to prod home the opener.
And the game was put to bed by Zlatinski from the spot after Jason Holt had been penalised for handball, before Robinson was dismissed late on.
Hearts: Alexander (Hamilton 45); L Smith (Paterson 45), Wilson (McGhee 45), Ozturk (McKay 45), Henderson (McHattie 45); Beith (Currie 45), Gomis (Robinson 45); D Smith (Carrick 45), Walker (Holt 45), King (Nicholson 45); Oliver (Keatings 45). Subs not used: Gordon.