Scottish football’s European travel woes continued tonight as Hearts were beaten by FC Zurich in the first leg of their Europa League play-offs.
This was the fourth attempt by a Premier League club to take something tangible from abroad so far this season, but just like Rangers, Dundee United and Motherwell before them, they returned empty-handed.
It briefly looked promising. Lawrence Shankland put the visitors ahead from the penalty spot, but the Swiss champions responded with two quick-fire goals from Adrian Guerrero and Blerim Dzemaili before the break.
Lawrence Shankland had initially given Hearts the lead from the penalty spot on the night
FC Zurich hit back through Adrian Guerrero and Blerim Dzemaili to win the match 2-1
The margin on the goal line could have been wider as Hearts were lucky in the second half.
They will at least have the chance to avenge this defeat at what should be a packed Tynecastle next Thursday when a guaranteed £3 million to reach the Europa League group stage is at stake.
The consolation prize will be progress to the Europa Conference League groups should they fall short.
Zurich have not had their fair share of trouble on home soil this season, picking up just two points from five in their bid to retain the title, but Franco Foda’s side were tidy on the ball and dangerous going forward.
Despite a vocal phalanx of Zurich fans making their presence felt behind one of the goals, it was by no means a hostile environment for the visitors.
Zurich can usually count on upwards of 10,000 fans at their home games, but with the first leg taking place in St Gallen, 55 miles west of Switzerland’s largest city, due to their home ground being double-booked with a music concert, a crowd of 5347 watched. This figure included around 1,000 supporters who made the trip from Edinburgh.
Adrian Guerrero (left) equalized for Zurich in the first half after Shankland’s opener
Blerim Dzemaili (left) also scored for Zurich before the break, while Hearts were unable to equalise
Hearts boss Robbie Neilson opted for a more defensive-minded line-up for the clash. Out went forward Alan Forrest and Liam Boyce, despite the pair having been key figures in the team’s good start to the home game.
Right wing-back Nathaniel Atkinson came on while Stephen Kingsley got his first start of the season after a hamstring problem. Peter Haring was also restored to the first XI.
There was also a rejig in the Hearts formation, with Barrie McKay taking a more central role in attack alongside Shankland rather than pinching the touchline.
However, Neilson was forced into a change inside the first seven minutes when Craig Halkett hobbled off injured. Toby Sibbick was the replacement.
Keeper Craig Gordon was in fine form and kept Hearts in the draw on several occasions
On a pitch that had been smeared by torrential rain both before and during the match, conditions underfoot were difficult for both sets of players.
That was probably a factor in a scrappy opening. As the teams sized each other up, there was little flow to the match.
Hearts were solid but conservative in getting numbers up front. Zürich gradually worked their way into the game and began to ask questions of the visiting rear guard.
Antonio Marchesano took a decent position just outside the box, but he swatted an effort wide of the target before Craig Gordon was called into action for the first time.
Dzemaili had plenty of power behind his free-kick and although the effort was straight at the Scotland No.1, Gordon first spilled the drive before smothering the ball.
Hearts made their mark when they took the lead in the 22nd minute from the penalty spot. They worked the ball far to Atkinson and the Australian was stamped on by Ole Selnaes in a clumsy challenge inside the box.
Hearts boss Robbie Nielson was left with a lot to think about at the end of the first leg
The second leg will take place in Scotland next Thursday with Hearts looking to bounce back
After an initial delay, Polish referee Bartosz Frankowski pointed to the spot, sparking protests from the Zurich players. Shankland kept his cool from 12 yards, driving a low effort into the left corner despite Yanick Brecher guessing the right way.
Zurich’s response, perhaps still furious at the penalty award, was emphatic as they scored two goals within two minutes.
The manner of the strikes was particularly galling to Neilson. Atkinson was responsible for the equalizer in the 32nd minute. The defender made a mistake when he was caught under goalkeeper Brecher’s long ball out. He ended up curling a header towards his own goal and Guerrero, lurking behind him, swung and volleyed a left-footed volley past Gordon from close range.
Hearts were alarmed and admitted again soon after. Haring’s attempt to intercept Guerrero’s low cross picked up Dzemaili and the former Swiss veteran fired a rising shot into the net from 12 yards.
Good work by McKay created a chance for Jorge Grant inside the box before the end of the half, but the Englishman had little power behind the drive and Brecher saved.
Neilson’s side will go into the Conference League group stage if they lose the tie on aggregate
1,000 Hearts fans made the trip to Sweden with a total of 5,347 spectators in St Gallen
Michael Smith came on for Atkinson after the break and was forced to defend as Zurich created a handful of chances immediately at the start of the second half.
Former Hearts winger Donis Avdijaj had a shot wide by Kye Rowles before Selnaes headed the corner over.
Avdijaj was involved again when he met a cross at the back post, but the Austrian headed wide.
Another chance came and went for Zürich in the 67th minute. Guerrero should have scored after being picked out by Avdijaj at the back post, but the volley wide.
Hearts brought on Boyce and Forrest in the closing stages and the latter shot wide.
Gordon then came to Hearts’ rescue in the 90th minute when he kept out Fabian Rohner.