An encouraging result saw Hearts leave the Hibernians Stadium 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 in next Thursday’s return match. Hearts showed plenty attacking intent without recklessly committing bodies forward. As the away team in a first-leg tie, caution was paramount.
Hearts 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 3000-capacity Hibernians Stadium, set in the ancient and narrow streets of Paola. Their usual base is Malta’s national stadium, Ta’ Qali, which is currently having a new pitch laid.
Coach Drazen Besek stated pre-match that he had only watched five minutes of Hearts in action. That seemed a slightly naive decision from the experienced Croatian but he nonetheless had his reasons.
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. They would have been pleased to find a breeze in the air when they took to the field. It was a far cry from their usual cool climate in Scotland, but European football drags every team out of their comfort zone sooner or later.
Hearts are eager to embrace that aspect of their involvement in the Europa League. They fared well on their travels to Tallinn last week and carried a fair degree of momentum to the Mediterranean. A 4-2 win over Infonet and 6-3 aggregate scoreline took them to Malta desperate to continue this continental adventure.
They were the seeded team, but Birkirkara are not your average Maltese side. Their collection of Croatians, Serbians, Slovenians and South Americans, allied to some experienced Maltese internationalists, gave them plenty knowledge of European-style football.
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. He was dejected at being denied his first goal for his new club.
As darkness descended, the decibel level increased inside the ground’s only stand. The Maltese fans, with obligatory drum, were intent on trying to unsettle the opposition as much as possible. Creative midfielder Srdan Dimitrov 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.
Players took the opportunity for a water break midway through the first half when Christian Bubalovic – Jovic’s deputy in defence – went down injured from an aerial challenge. Then came an official water stoppage on 26 minutes. Bubalovic was still down. After treatment pitchside for fully nine minutes, he re-entered the field with his head heavily bandaged.
It was Hearts who were forced into the game’s first substitution. Midfielder Perry Kitchen suffered a tight hamstring and 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.
Kopric would almost certainly have been a central figure in Robbie Neilson’s half-time team-talk. The keeper’s decision-making, handling and kicking looked less than convincing during the first 45 minutes. That would not have been lost on Neilson, the Hearts head coach.
Walker’s corner at the start of the second half exposed Kopric’s deficiencies. First he came for the cross, then backtracked before taking to the air to collect Igor Rossi’s header despite it being a routine save. Walker, unsurprisingly, remained the biggest source of Hearts’ flair and creativity out on the left flank. They also tried to utilise Callum Paterson’s long throw-ins to put pressure on 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. They know the power in the Turk’s right foot, and true to form he dispatched a venomous effort from more than 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. Thereafter, Hearts looked happy to see the game out and take a goalless draw back to Edinburgh.
Celtic’s Champions League qualifying loss in Gibraltar makes this week memorable for all the wrong reasons. A draw away from home in Europe could not be considered a negative. It was a job well done for Hearts, but still only half done for now.
Birkirkara: (4-2-3-1): Kopric; Attard, Bubalovic, Emerson, Zerafa; Sciberras, Guillaumier; Scicluna (Marrotti 90), Dimitrov (Bilbao 90), Bajada (Temile 81); Plut. Unused subs: Akpan, Herrera, Camenzuli, Djordjevic.
Hearts: (4-2-3-1): Hamilton; L Smith, Ozturk, Rossi, Rherras; Kitchen (Cowie 30), Buaben; Paterson, Djoum, Walker (Nicholson 81); Sammon (Juanma 74). Unused subs: Noring, Souttar, Zanatta, Muirhead.