Christophe Berra expects Hearts to march through to the third qualifying round of the Europa League as long as they can handle the searing heat of a Bosnian summer.
The Tynecastle side are red-hot favourites to overcome their first hurdle against Estonian side FC Infonet. If they oust the Tallinn-based outfit, Robbie Neilson’s team will then face either Maltese side Birkirkara or Bosnia’s Siroki Brijeg next month after today’s draw for the first two rounds was made in Nyon, Switzerland.
Berra, now of Ipswich Town, made his European debut for Hearts as a 21-year-old against Siroki Brijeg in a Champions League qualifier in 2006. They went into that tie a decade ago as Bosnian champions but were beaten 3-0 by Hearts at Murrayfield before a 0-0 draw in the second leg at the 8000-capacity Pecara Stadium secured smooth progress for Valdas Ivanauskas’ team.
Siroki Brijeg, who are seeded against Birkirkara, are expected to provide the opposition for Hearts in the second qualifying round and Berra doesn’t anticipate any drastic improvement from a team that finished third in their domestic league last season.
“After having such a good season last year, Hearts will be disappointed if they don’t get through the first two rounds,” the Scotland defender told the Evening News. “Hearts’ quality should shine through in both ties. I don’t want to disrespect Siroki Brijeg but I don’t think Hearts should be daunted about playing them. The best players in these countries usually move on to bigger countries pretty quickly so any good players they have are likely to be young.”
Hearts returned to pre-season training last week following four-and-a-half weeks off. Infonet are midway through their Estonian league campaign, while Siroki Brijeg start their domestic campaign in late July. The Maltese season doesn’t start until August.
Berra, who played the full 180 minutes against Siroki Brijeg, believes the only two issues that could hinder Hearts’ hopes of making the third qualifying round is searing Balkan heat and lack of match sharpness.
“I remember getting off the plane in Bosnia and it was about 40 degrees,” he said. “It was roasting. Sometimes not having match fitness and sharpness can be a massive factor when it’s like that but hopefully not having much of a pre-season under their belts won’t affect them too much. Playing at a full house at Tynecastle should help Hearts get through both rounds.”
Although Balkan teams are notorious for having hostile supporters, Berra doesn’t recall being particularly intimidated at Pecara Stadium. His most unnerving memories from a country which had been ravaged by war came from outwith the football stadium.
“It was quite an old stadium but the pitch wasn’t bad,” he said. “The fans weren’t too bad either – the crowd wasn’t that big. The hotel was really nice but the thing I remember is that when we were driving about on the bus you could see all the bullet holes in the buildings and all that kind of stuff. You see it all on the news but when you actually see it for yourself, it’s a real eye-opener.”