Hearts ready for 'straight shootout as prospect of big guns spurs them on
Trailing 2-1 from the first leg in St Gallen last week, the Gorgie boss has described the return fixture, at Tynecastle on Thursday night, as a “straight shootout”.
With away goals not a deciding factor, winning by one on the night would level things and push the tie into extra time and, if necessary, penalties, but a two-goal difference would book them a spot in Friday’s Europa League draw.
There they could meet the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Roma or Lazio, but first they need to find a way to turn things around against the technically-sound Swiss champions.
“I think it is absolutely brilliant for Scottish football, as a nation but obviously individually for the club,” explained the man who has played and scored for the capital club on European business. But this will arguably be the most important home game of his managerial career.
“Rangers and Celtic are used to getting in there, we aren’t. So, to get the experience of travelling to games, playing against different teams, it will hold them in good stead for the rest of their careers and also this season. Hopefully they see the levels they need to get to to be able to continue to progress.
“This shows the level the club should be at in my opinion, we should be top end of the league, European football on a regular basis. It’s easier said than done. But we’ve got a brilliant stadium, great fan base, training facilities, brilliant city to live in, good squad, great board so we should be at this level. It’s about making sure we do it consistently.”
“It would be great to get the victory. I felt we had a good performance out there but it's a different ball game coming back to Tynecastle with a full house. It's going to be a great atmosphere and we're looking forward to it.”
Assured of a sell-out crowd, there have been many memorable European nights under the Tynecastle floodlights and Neilson is hoping this will be another.
“We have to use it [the atmosphere] to our advantage. Away goals don't count so it's a straight shootout. We're a goal behind so we have to take the game to them.
“I would expect them to try to manage the game and hit us on the counter-attack because they're very good on the counter so we need to make sure we cover that but we'll have 20,000 fans here and they'll want to see us perform. We want to make sure we start the game well.”
Last week, there was disappointment in the early stages as Craig Halkett was taken off injured. It unsettled the SPFL side but they have had time to prepare for his absence this time, and have been bolstered by captain Craig Gordon and Stephen Kingsley’s return to fitness after they were also forced onto the sidelines for the weekend trip to Celtic Park.
In Switzerland, there rivals were also able to utilise the space on the park and the pace in their team to counter-attack but at a tighter Tynecastle that threat is diluted.
“You could see they're technically very good, especially in the forward areas,” admitted Neilson. “Their No 10 was dropping in and they had a lot of pace up front on the counter attack so we learned quite a lot about them and their level from having the game last week.
“We’re playing against a very good team so we have to make sure that defensively we’re solid and organised well and when the chances come we take them. We gave up a few chances over there but we also created a number of chances so it’s going to be a tough game. We have to make sure we’re set up defensively but also a threat and we’ll put quite a few attacking players out to try and win the game.”
FC Zurich Franco Foda has prepared his men for the intensity they expect to encounter, on the pitch and in the stands.
“We watched the game against Celtic and we saw that it was a different team they played.
“We’ve prepared for different set-ups, depending on whether they set up with three or four at the back. Ultimately what it’s really about in a game like this is the mentality, enthusiasm and courage.”
A Hearts side plumped up by young players, the sprinkling of experience brought by the likes of Gordon, Kingsley, Peter Haring and Liam Boyce will be invaluable but, with every 90 minutes they get under their belts, the Hearts novices become better placed to challenge at that level.
While, the safety net of Conference League group football if they fall at this hurdle, has taken a degree of jeopardy out of the match and furnished the home side with the freedom to chase their dream.
“It was a brilliant experience for them,” said Neilson of last week’s 90 minutes. “We’ve got a number of guys who have played quite a lot of games, Craig Gordon and boys like that. But for the other ones it is a different style of football.
“When you play in Scotland you play each other four, five times a season so you know each other. I have done a lot of work with players individually on which opposition players they are against. The atmosphere, the travelling, it was all a great experience for the players and I thought they handled it really well.
“We know tomorrow is going to be tough. They're Swiss champions, they did well against us last week, and they've got something to play for tomorrow. But the boys are looking forward to it. Coming back here with the fans, the atmosphere, the stadium, we feel we've got a real good chance.”