Why excitement surrounds Hearts Conference League group - £40m transfers, World Cup winner, winnable games
Hope became confidence as Robbie Neilson’s men dominated Zurich, making the Swiss champions resemble a lower league side.
Frustration chipped away at that confidence as opportunities came and went. Still, there was a strong belief, even if the atmosphere which began with intensity became pensive. Then the pin to pop the balloon arrived. Jorge Grant fell to the ground inside the penalty box. Thousands screamed ‘penalty’. The referee reached for the yellow then red card.
Belief turned into resignation. 1-0 Zurich. Resignation was replaced by disappointment.
They say it is the hope which kills you. But witnessing supporters leaving Tynecastle Park in the closing moments, it was the grim reality which acted as the executioner.
Come Friday afternoon, and despite seeing Zurich drawn with Arsenal, PSV Eindhoven and Bodo/Glimt, the Conference League draw was the perfect elixir. Hearts can look forward to facing revered Italian side Fiorentina, star-studded Istanbul Basaksehir and Latvian champions RFS. The lingering disappointment of Thursday night has given way to excitement and anticipation.
Ahead of the draw, Robbie Neilson spoke of a balance. A glamour tie for the fans but also winnable games. They have got that.
New teams on the scene
RFS, currently third in the Latvian top-flight, snuck past Linfield in bizarre circumstances, involving a last-minute own goal. The good news for fans planning on travelling to Riga; the Linfield tie was switched to the 8,000-capacity Skonto Stadium rather than their 650-seater LNK Sporta Parks.
To have any hope of emerging from the group, Hearts have to secure six points in their meetings with RFS.
Like the Latvians, İstanbul Başakşehir are not a team with a long European history. However, the 2020 Turkish champions are an intriguing club. Following a change in ownership in 2014, significant investment was made.
They play at the new Başakşehir Fatih Terim Stadium which holds 17,800 spectators and have a star studded squad with 18 current or former internationalists, including German World Cup winner Mesut Ozil, Argentine Lucas Biglia and Stefano Okaka of Italy.
On the European stage they have beaten the likes of Manchester United, Braga and Borussia Monchengladbach.
The mouthwatering tie
As for Fiorentina, no introduction is required.
For a generation of fans, this is a mouthwatering tie. The history, the prestige, the nostalgia. The purple kits, Fila, Nintendo, Toyota. Gabriel Batistuta tormenting defenders and banging in goals. Rui Costa pulling strings. Latterly, Adrian Mutu and Luca Toni.
Last season’s seventh place finish was the highest since 2016.
Since January they have lost their two best players, Federico Chiesa and Dušan Vlahović, to rivals Juventus for more than £100million. Over £40million has been reinvested in four players, Rolando Mandragora, Arthur Cabral, Dodô and Jonathan Ikoné.
Maroon and white flags will be planted along the Bosphorus, on the Ponte Vecchio and around Riga’s Old City. It is a tantalising prospect ahead for the club and supporters. And for more nights like Thursday where hope of success emerges and emotions are put through the wringer. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
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