Hearts have established themselves as favourites to progress into the third qualifying round of the Europa League following their goalless first leg against Birkirkara. However, the underdog tag is unlikely to faze their Maltese opponents.
Birkirkara manager Drazen Besek has signalled his intention to “spring a surprise” at Tynecastle tomorrow night. Any belief in the Hearts camp that Birkirkara’s lack of goal threat at home has swung the tie in the Gorgie team’s favour would do well to heed lessons learned by West Ham at this stage of qualifying last year.
Having trailed 1-0 to the Hammers in London, Birkirkara overturned the deficit in the second leg before losing on penalties. Although Birkirkara have undergone personnel changes from last season, the system they operate in Europe has not altered markedly. They are happy to soak up possession and strike on the counter and, if there is any surprise sprung on Thursday, it is not likely be sacrificing a even deep approach to the game.
Last Thursday, Birkirkara lined up with a 4-2-3-1 formation which adapted to a 4-1-4-1 when defending. It is the latter set-up which should see a reprise on Thursday with more support given to full-back Cain Attard, who struggled to cope with Jamie Walker. Birkirkara gave away a remarkable 74 per cent of possession at Upton Park last year and the prospect of frustrating Hearts all the way to penalties remains an appealing one for Besek’s men. Robbie Neilson’s aim to coax his opponents out of their shell by scoring an early goal – Conor Sammon denied by an offside flag last week – will therefore be a priority.
In Birkirkara’s attacking armoury, Robbie Neilson will again pay attention to lone striker Vito Plut. Plut played for the Maribor side which eliminated Hibs in 2010 and was Birkirkara’s top scorer last season. How he will fare playing an even more isolated role in the return leg will be pivotal to the course of the game.
Hearts undoubtedly hold the advantage and capability to set up a third-round tie with Russian side Krasnodar, but the persistence and tenacity of Birkirkara which West Ham witnessed last season will be the biggest asset.