INSIDE a stadium bedecked in green, maroon was the dominant colour as Hearts powered into the Europa League’s second qualifying round.
Goals from Callum Paterson, Alim Ozturk and an Igor Rossi double secured a 4-2 away win, and a 6-3 aggregate victory over the Estonian club FC Infonet.
It was the first time in history Hearts had scored four away goals in European competition. They will meet Birkirkara of Malta next week in the next round after a rousing success at Estonia’s national stadium.
Le Coq Arena is home to FC Flora Tallinn and was used for the second leg of this first qualifying round because Infonet’s ground is too small. Its 10,000 emerald green seats – the Flora colours – weren’t the most aesthetically pleasing for the 240-strong Hearts support in a 1300 crowd. Their team made light of the surroundings, though, with a gritty and impassioned display.
Leading 2-1 from the first leg in Edinburgh, they scored twice inside the opening nine minutes. When Ozturk plundered a third seconds from half-time, the tie was over. Paterson became the first Hearts player to score a European away goal from open play outside Britain since a certain Robbie Neilson in Basel in 2004. Rossi headed the second, Ozturk flicked home the third, and Rossi then got the fourth in the second half. Some exquisite set-piece delivery from the outstanding Jamie Walker led to all four Hearts goals.
It was a hot day in Tallinn but Hearts’ performance was just as searing. Temperatures exceeded 20 degrees inside Estonia’s national stadium. This was the Edinburgh club’s first European away match since Anfield four years ago, when a 1-1 draw with Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool wasn’t enough to prevent a 2-1 aggregate loss. Estonia is an entirely different environment to north-west England, of course.
A noisy Samba-style band playing in the centre circle before kick-off helped get the visiting fans at the north end of the ground going. A chant of “don’t take me home” indicated how much they had enjoyed this sojourn to eastern Europe. Less than 2000 fans were in attendance overall, making for an atmosphere that was anything but intimidating.
Neilson, Hearts’ head coach, sprung a surprise with his team by selecting 20-year-old Liam Smith at right-back. This was his European debut, and indeed only his 14th senior appearance for Hearts overall. He was to excel. In front of him in a flexible 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation was regular right-back Callum Paterson. He operated as a right winger going forward.
Perry Kitchen, the American internationalist, anchored midfield. His presence was intended to let Arnaud Djoum and Prince Buaben venture forward in support of central striker Connor Sammon, prefered to the Spanish forward Juanma Delgado. Neilson’s tactics worked perfectly.
The visitors’ priority was not to lose an early goal, and to try to hit on the counter-attack where possible. They were in control at kick-off and knew it would require a disciplined defensive display to get through. The opening period could not have panned out better, in truth.
Just 90 seconds in, Paterson rose to meet Walker’s corner and plant a towering header into the Infonet rigging. It was the early away goal Hearts craved to cancel out the Estonians’ strike at Tynecastle.
Seven minutes later, Rossi made it two. Again Walker provided the assist, arcing a free-kick from the right to the back post, where the Brazilian centre-back was on the run to power the ball home from close range. The visiting players huddled triumphantly in the corner knowing a 4-1 aggregate scoreline put them firmly in command of their own European destiny.
Infonet looked somewhat shellshocked by the ferocity of Hearts’ start. Their frustration began to show on 20 minutes when Ofosu Appiah tackled Walker late and high. Kitchen reacted angrily and confronted the Ghanaian, and both players were cautioned. Aleksandr Volodin clattered knee-high into Walker seconds later but somehow avoided a yellow card.
Infonet goalkeeper Matvei Igonen needed two attempts to hold Ozturk’s 25-yard free-kick just after the half-hour mark. From Buaben’s left-footed cross, Sammon glanced a header wide of target. Efforts by Djoum and Walker were then blocked. Hearts’ attacks were relentless during the first half against an unconvincing Estonian defence.
Moments before the interval, they struck again. Another of Walker’s corners was headed down by Rossi but the ball looked to be bouncing wide. Ozturk somehow wrapped his foot around it from the most acute angle to flick it beyond Igonen. He looked elated with his first European goal.
The second half was very much an end-to-end contest, and Infonet were much improved thanks to a double substitution at the interval. It began with Ozturk inadvertently turning Nikolai Masitsev’s cross into his own net past goalkeeper Jack Hamilton. However, Rossi’s low effort from 12 yards just a minute later was deflected past the helpless Igonen to restore Hearts’ three-goal lead. Appiah’s poor clearing header from Walker’s deep free-kick was responsible for the ball landing at Rossi’s feet 12 yards out.
Vladimir Voskoboinikov volleyed home a cross on 63 minutes to again signal that Infonet were not yet finished. It also exposed some of Hearts’ defensive frailties which must be addressed ahead of the Birkirkara tie. Hamilton was seen bawling at defenders for some slack marking as Voskoboinkov’s shot nestled in the far corner of his net.
Walker was replaced by Nicholson to a chorus of “one Jamie Walker” from the north of the stadium. John Souttar then took Buaben’s place to shore up in midfield for the final stages. The drama was not over, though.
When Jevgeni Harin hit the crossbar from a cross, Appiah collided with Hamilton and both players were left grounded. Ambulance and medics entered the field and, after more than five minutes, Appiah was eventually helped from the pitch. He exchanged angry words with Neilson walking past the visitors’ technical area. Hamilton emerged with his head bandaged and required a new shirt to continue because of blood stains.
In comparison to the previous 80, the final ten minutes of this affair were decidedly tame. That suited Hearts, who could begin preparing for Malta.
FC Infonet: Igonen, Volodin (Kulinits 75), Appiah, Kalimullen, Avilov (Domov 46), Kruglov, Mashichev, Dmitrijev, Mosnikov (Dramani 46), Harin, Voskoboinikov. Unused subs: Lavrentjev, Vnukov, Golovljov, Rattel.
Hearts: Hamilton, L Smith, Ozturk, Rossi, Rherras, Buaben (Souttar 74), Kitchen, Djoum (Juanma 89), Paterson, Sammon, Walker (Nicholson 70). Unused subs: Gallacher, Gomis, Zanatta, Todorov.
Referee: Petr Ardeleanu (Czech Republic).