An encouraging result at the Hibernians Stadium saw Hearts jet out of Malta feeling quite contented. Although disappointed not to score in a ground bearing the name of their Edinburgh rivals, they will be confident of beating Birkirkara at Tynecastle next week to reach the Europa League third qualifying round.
Hearts and the Maltese club both enter Friday’s draw unseeded, meaning whoever prevails in this tie will face a higher ranked team. That won’t concern either right now. A positive Hearts display secured a respectable 0-0 draw in the Mediterranean heat. They might even have won this second qualifying round, first leg, had Alim Ozturk’s 35-yard effort not rebounded off the crossbar in the second half.
Defensively, Birkirkara didn’t impress and their attack barely threatened at the opposite end. Those weaknesses could well be exploited next Thursday. Hearts showed plenty attacking intent without recklessly committing bodies forward.
They controlled virtually the entire game and never looked like conceding a goal. Indeed, as the match neared its end, it was Birkirkara supporters whistling for the Bulgarian referee to signal full-time. They cheered and celebrated when it arrived.
Perhaps they were mindful of their team’s status as underdogs. Without the hulking centre-back Predrag Jovic due to injury, Birkirkara had to reshape their defence. They were also inconvenienced playing at the 3,000-capacity Hibernians Stadium in Paola. Their usual base is Malta’s national stadium, Ta’ Qali, which is currently having a new pitch laid.
The visitors, with the same starting line-up that demolished Infonet in Estonia last week, faced the challenge of 27 degree heat and 77 per cent humidity. Hearts started purposefully and had the ball in the net inside three minutes through Conor Sammon. However, the striker was flagged offside fastening on to Prince Buaben’s pass following a neat exchange between Jamie Walker and Faycal Rherras on the left side.
As darkness descended, the decibel level increased inside the ground’s only stand. The Maltese fans were intent on trying to unsettle the opposition as much as possible. Creative midfielder Dimitrov Srdan angled a free-kick goalwards which Jack Hamilton held at the second attempt.
Hearts’ high pressing unsettled Birkirkara and gave the hosts little space to play, although it was obvious they would wilt if the early tempo was maintained. Their impressive start pleased the 350-odd travelling fans. News of Hibs conceding a goal inside 20 seconds against Brondby merely increased the joviality in the away section.
Hearts who were forced into the game’s first substitution. Midfielder Perry Kitchen, who had a tight hamstring, was replaced by Don Cowie. From Buaben’s 36th-minute cross, Walker ghosted in at the back post but his tame header was easily collected by the Croat goalkeeper Miroslav Kopric.
Many of the visitors’ attacks were cut short by fouls from the Maltese. This visibly frustrated Neilson but his players continued pushing for that away goal. The aggregate score between Scottish and Maltese clubs in Europe stands at 42-1, so history was certainly in their favour.
When Oztuk moseyed forwards for a strike at goal on 63 minutes, anticipation grew amongst the travelling fans. He dispatched a venomous effort from 35 yards which rattled Kopric’s crossbar.
Another chance ten minutes from the end fell to Paterson. Again it stemmed from a Walker corner, Kopric came out but didn’t collect the ball, however Paterson’s first-time shot bounced wide.