Hearts 2 - 1 Infonet: Hearts battle back for first leg win
There have been plenty of European nights to savour under the lights at Tynecastle but there have been others that were simply run-of-the-mill occasions. This was one to file in the latter category as Hearts had to bite and scrap for the narrow lead they will take to Tallinn for the second leg of this Europa League first round qualifier.
A goal down within the first 20 minutes, the home side recovered to overhaul their guests by the time the interval arrived and held on to that one-goal advantage. But they will travel to Estonia next week well apprised of the fact that there is still plenty work to be done and conscious that they will be up against a side who can trouble them defensively.
Robbie Neilson had wanted an up tempo performance but at times it wasn’t even upbeat as Hearts struggled to get a grip of the match and spoil their guests’ fun. It was a first ever game in European competition for the Estonian side but, more crucially, it was Hearts’ first competitive match of the season and on the night, that seemed more telling. The team from Tallinn are well into their domestic season, with 17 fixtures under their belts prior to this head to head. Hearts only returned for pre-season training a couple of weeks ago. Against a team who had enough about them to cause concerns, the capital team were given plenty to think about as they tried to make up for their rustiness.
In the build-up to the game, Hearts players of the past had relived the drama and the excitement of encounters with the likes of Stuttgart and Liverpool.
The 14,417 inside the ground tried, at times, to recreate the noise and the passion of those nights but while the tension was there it wasn’t the kind that crackled like electricity in the air, it was more the kind of nerviness that drains stadia of energy and manifests itself in loose passing, slack marking and wild efforts at goal.
But there were openings at both ends. Hearts kicked off with Jack Hamilton, their newly elevated No 1 in goal, and he was probably busier than he would have liked and many punters, who had been down playing this match as little more than a pre-season runaround, would have predicted.
The majority of the men in front of him were the same players who had taken Hearts to third place in the Premiership last term to set up their shot at European football. But in amongst them, new signings Faycal Rherras and Conor Sammon occupied berths at either end of the park, while Perry Kitchen, straight from his Copa America gig with USA, was on the bench.
Infonet, who had brought just two supporters with them according to official attendance numbers, were undaunted by Hearts and their hefty home advantage. They were organised, technically proficient and with a bit of adventure about them whenever there was space or errors to exploit. In short, they were not afraid to have a go.
In the tenth minute Jegveni Harin intercepted a stray pass and the visiting forward then charged in on goal. Unable to finish off the attack, it was Hearts’ turn to press. Captain Alim Ozturk broke upfield accompanied by a fanfare of pleas to shoot from the Hearts crowd. But when he finally heeded them, he didn’t connect properly and the trundling effort was easily dealt with. In a period of end to end action John Souttar failed to deal with a high ball and Vladimir Voskoboinikov slammed an effort at goal.
But with 20 minutes gone the visitors did take the lead, when Harin sent a stunning volley past Hamilton.
Hearts equalised from the penalty spot seven minutes later. Vladimir Avilov’s hand halted Juanma’s ball into the danger area and gifted Prince Buaben the opportunity to send Matvei Igonen the wrong way from the spot.
With ten minutes of the half remaining Hearts took the lead. Jamie Walker’s corner caused a melee in the box before the ball ricochetted off visiting captain Andrei Kalimullin and into the net. It was messy but no-one cared.
That could have been the perfect way to sum up the performance and the result, as Hearts weathered a few mini storms in the second half, with Hamilton denying the visitors on a couple of occasions and some scrappy defending getting the job done at other times.
Try as they might Hearts couldn’t piece together anything efficient enough and clinical enough to add to their tally but will be happy to take a lead back to Estonia for the second leg on Wednesday. It was messy and while no-one will ultimately care if they still get through, there were a few boos at the final whistle and a reminder that there is still plenty work to do.
HEARTS: Hamilton, Rherras, Paterson, Souttar, Ozturk, Buaben (Kitchen 79), Nicholson, Djoum, Walker, Sammon, Delgado (King 65). Subs not used: Gallacher, Igor Rossi, Liam Smith, Todorov, Zanatta.
FC INFONET: Igonen, Appiah, Kalimulin, Avilov, Volodin, Dmitrijev, Mosnikov, Kruglov, Harin (Kulinits 83), Mashicev (Dramani 61), Voskoboinikov. Subs not used: Zelentsov, Vnukov, Golovljov, Domov, Rattel.