Hearts v Zurich: The 12th man role, defining moment, how Neilson could line-up & Swiss threat

The defining moment of the Hearts v Zurich Europa League play-off tie may well have arrived in the 89th minute of the first-leg clash in St Gallen.

The ball was turned over by the visitors deep in the opposition half. Substitute Cheick Conde picked out fellow sub Fabian Rohner on the half-way line with Hearts exposed.

Rohner ran through on goal, managing to evade the attention of Kye Rowles, before being denied by the Hearts man of the match Craig Gordon. However, better awareness and he would have noticed Antonio Marchesano who was in the perfect position to tap home.

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Going from 2-1 to 3-1 late on, the mentality around the tie would have altered. In the Gorgie camp, there would have been increased doubt and pessimism. The decibel level at Tynecastle Park may well have been influenced, an added layer of nervousness. There would have been little margin for error.

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Trailing 2-1, however, brings a different outlook and even a confidence that Hearts have every chance of overturning the first-leg deficit.

Speak to any supporter, officials, players, it won't be long before the Tynecastle atmosphere is mentioned.

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UEFA this week released a technical report looking back at last season’s Europa League and it included a specific section on the "12th man", praising the efforts of Rangers fans at Ibrox and the support of Eintracht Frankfurt.

“The two finalists were perhaps the finest examples of fan power, where their 12th man in the stands encouraged, urged and inspired them to overcome the odds and produce match-winning performances,” the report read.

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Hearts will have to be wary against the threat of Wilfried Gnonto if he plays for Zurich. Picture: AP

"‘Against Braga, because of the crowd, Rangers dominated' said one technical observer. ‘They had a fast tempo, the crosses going in; there was instant pressing, it was a totally different game [to the first leg] and the fans definitely affected that. In Rangers’ home matches, they carried them.’”

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Intensity and energy

Player mentality, Robbie Neilson’s tactics, opposition will all be of great importance but the Hearts support will have a big part to play. Not just on Thursday night but through the group stages. Fans have taken the day off or secured an early finish ahead of the game. They are also being encouraged to get into the ground slightly earlier to help build up the atmosphere ahead of kick-off.

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During the pandemic, Neilson and his players spoke of how the team can thrive off the energy created from the stands.

Hearts fans will have a big part to play for Europa League clash with Zurich. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)
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"I think it's really important next week that we start really brightly, we start fast and get the intensity up right away," Barrie McKay told the Evening News.

Such an approach brings with it a loud and appreciative response from the crowd, not that they will need it, the game arguably being the most important at Tynecastle since a 1-0 win over Aberdeen in 2006 to secure second place.

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Swiss threat

In terms of how Hearts begin the game, a gung-ho approach is unlikely. Zurich’s threat on the counter-attack is well known and was there to see in the first-leg, failing to capitalise on a few openings which presented themselves in such a way.

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"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," Neilson said.

An early concession would be deflating and provide Hearts with an uphill task. The home support may well have to show a bit of patience.

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Zurich boss Franco Foda rested ten of the 11 players who started the first-leg in Sunday’s 4-0 win in the Swiss Cup. Wilfried Gnonto started as did Tosin Aiyegun who scored a hat-trick. Both could come into consideration to lead the attack. Especially Gnonto. The Italian international is wanted by Leeds United, a better prospect than Donis Avdijaj and would add to the visitors counter-attacking threat.

The Swiss champions are likely to line-up with what could be a back five at times as they look to soak up pressure.

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“We have a lot fast players and hopefully we can create some chances through counter attacks," Foda said.

For Hearts, Neilson's men have been a more complete outfit so far this season with a back four.

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That was the case when they finished the match in St Gallen. There may have been more gaps but they were more purposeful in attack.

Back 4 rather than 5

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Having started the match confidently with the 3-5-2, following the two-goal concession it was clear to see it can be easy for the formation to drop to a back five and difficult to get back out of it and play higher up the park.

Craig Halkett's likely absence, a huge blow, may well force Neilson’s hand. Stephen Kingsley and Kye Rowles will have to form a rarely seen left-footed centre-back partnership. Nathaniel Atkinson starting against Celtic suggests Michael Smith will play at right-back with Alex Cochrane on the left.

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The front three of Lawrence Shankland, Alan Forrest and McKay picks itself. The latter frightened Zurich every time he got on the ball, and understandably so, as they backed off.

Some fans will be calling for Liam Boyce's inclusion but a midfield three of Peter Haring, Cammy Devlin and Jorge Grant could give Hearts the players to control the middle of the park better, which will be imperative if Zurich sit off, but also a bit more legs for an intense start.

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Boyce would then provide Neilson with a very good attacking option off the bench if the situation requires.

Proper, tense European nights under the lights at Tynecastle have been far too few to come back over the last 20 years. Thursday night is one of those special evenings.

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Gorgie is going to be loud and maroon from early in the afternoon. If Hearts can take advantage of Rohner’s lack of awareness and overturn the one-goal deficit, with the back of the 12th man, the decibels will reach those famous nights of old in EH11 and give the new-look Tynecastle its most memorable evening yet.

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