Dario Zanatta’s time at Hearts continues to progress at a more rapid rate than he expected when he pitched up at Tynecastle last summer.
After making 13 appearances for the first team last season, the 19-year-old Canadian attacker, who arrived primarily as a development player, found himself on the bench for both legs of the Europa League first qualifying round victory over Estonian side FC Infonet.
Having scored his third goal in four pre-season friendlies in Saturday’s 3-1 defeat by Dunfermline, Zanatta is hopeful of keeping himself involved when Hearts head to Malta to face Birkirkara in the first leg of their second qualifying round tie on Thursday.
“This is only my second season in Scottish football, so to be part of the squad in the Europa League is something I would never have thought would happen,” said the teenager. “I am just hoping I get my opportunity to show what I can do. I feel I have been gaining confidence by playing more with the first team and doing well in pre-season, as well as picking up experience from the other guys, so I feel like when my opportunity comes I’ll be ready to take it.”
Malta is currently basking in temperatures in excess of 30 degrees celsius. Zanatta hopes his experience of playing in searing heat across the Atlantic comes into the thinking of head coach Robbie Neilson when he picks his squad for the trip to the Mediterranean.
“The heat will be nothing new for me,” said. “I have played in tournaments in Texas and places like that around this time of year and I know the challenges when it is so warm. I’ve played in Mexico in those temperatures, too, and it is something you need to be prepared for. It is never easy when it is 30 degrees and there is a lot of humidity but it is the same for both teams and I don’t think we should use that as an excuse.
“There are times you need to conserve your energy. You might feel the pace and be a little out of breath, but I feel like you still need to play your own game. You need to stick to what you’re good at and do what the gaffer wants from you and, if selected, that’s what I’ll be doing.”
Zanatta gave the scoreline some respectability on Saturday with a late penalty which he won himself after being fouled by Lee Ashcroft. By that point, Dunfermline had the match sewn up with a three-goal blitz in the space of 16 first-half minutes. Andy Geggan scored twice before Joe Cardle drilled in the third. Aside from this period of relative disarray for Hearts, there was little between the sides in a game which featured newly-signed goalkeeper Viktor Noring and trialist defender Liam Donnelly. Neilson was unfazed by the result. “We were playing with a patched-up team and it was difficult to get momentum,” he said. “We made 11 changes to the team that played in Estonia, so it was just about fitness, getting 90 minutes and making sure we didn’t get any injuries.”
Donnelly, a 20-year-old centre-back, was capped by Northern Ireland as a teenager but is currently a free agent after leaving Fulham. He was on trial with Partick Thistle earlier in pre-season and is now bidding to win a deal at Hearts.
“Liam’s been in training with us for a couple of days and he’s been doing well,” said Neilson. “He did okay against Dunfermline so we’ll take a look at him over the next couple of days and then make a decision on him. With Jordan McGhee going to Middlesbrough, it’s an area where we’d like to get one more in so we’re having a look at Liam and we’ve had another couple of defenders put into us.”
The main positive from Hearts’ perspective after Saturday is that Don Cowie, who captained the team, is now in contention for Europa League involvement after sitting out both legs against Infonet as he works his way back to full fitness following calf problems at the end of last season. The 33-year-old was Hearts’ standout player as he came through his second full match of pre-season.
“I’m delighted for Don,” said Neilson. “That’s him played two 90 minutes and he’s come through them well. He’ll be involved in the European squad now.”
Dunfermline: Hutton, Williamson, Martin, Ashcroft, Richards-Everton, Wedderburn, McCabe, Geggan (Spence 83), Moffat (McMullan 76), Reilly, Cardle. Unused subs: Gill, Talbot, Spark, Hopkirk, Thomas, Smith.
Hearts: Noring, Godinho (Brandon 85), Donnelly (Trialist), Souttar, Oshaniwa, Nicholson, Cowie, Buchanan (Vladislav 60), Zanatta, Todorov (Muirhead 46), Juanma (Reid 77). Unused sub: Gallacher.
Referee: Steven McLean