Hearts 1, Birkirkara 2: Neilson’s men crash out of Europe

Birkirkara's Christian Bubalovic, centre, celebrates scoring his side's opening goal against Hearts
Birkirkara's Christian Bubalovic, centre, celebrates scoring his side's opening goal against Hearts
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TINY Birkirkara celebrating at Tynie. This wasn’t supposed to happen. After eliminating Hearts from the Europa League qualifiers, the little Maltese club were entitled to enjoy the greatest result in their history.

They left Edinburgh with a 2-1 victory and left their Scottish counterparts floundering on another ignominous European evening for Scottish football. Hearts were expected to secure their place in the Europa League’s third qualifying round but, instead, were picked off in the second half by Birkirkara’s intelligent counter-attacks.

A 0-0 first-leg draw in Malta put the Tynecastle club in a favourable position which they could not capitalise on, despite being the seeded team in this tie. Prince Buaben saw a first-half penalty saved by Birkirkara goalkeeper Miroslav Kopric, and both Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson hit the crossbar on a depressing evening for Hearts and their supporters.

Visiting centre-back Christian Bubalovic and defender-turned-striker Edward Herrera scored Birkirkara’s goals after the interval. Conor Sammon’s first Hearts goal merely acted as a consolation. It was of no real comfort to anyone in maroon, if truth be told. As Birkirkara players and staff danced around near the corner flag at full-time, there was the realisation that this young Hearts side had received a lesson in the harsh realities of European football.

A warm summer’s night in Gorgie certainly suited the Maltese more than their hosts, whose captain Alim Ozturk had hoped for a cold and wet evening. In reality, it was anything but. The weather wasn’t as sticky or humid as in Paola last week, however, the pre-match sunshine warmed Tynecastle nicely and set the tone for a tense evening’s football.

Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson chose winger Nicholson to replace the injured American midfielder Perry Kitchen. Nicholson carries plenty attacking threat and earned his place after a sprightly performance as a substitute in Malta last week.

It was a night for strong hearts and minds. Birkirkara’s defence is nothing if not well drilled and defiant. The night was to prove that their attacks are none too shabby, either.

The Maltese were chasing what would be the biggest result in their existence in trying to eliminate Hearts. Never before had they reached the third qualifying round of a European competition. After last week’s goalless draw, they arrived with a good degree of optimism but needed an away goal to realise their dream.

They almost got it inside the opening two minutes. Midfielder Dimitrov Srdan angled a cross to the back post which was dipping into the corner of the net until Hearts goalkeeper Jack Hamilton pushed it away. A follow-up effort from Cain Attard was blocked, and the subsequent clearance completed a fortunate escape for those in maroon.

Pace going forward was one of Hearts’ principal weapons, with Callum Paterson galloping down the right flank and Nicholson on the left. Paterson’s aerial ability was also a danger and, consequently, the Maltese marked him tightly. He did manage to reach Faycal Rherras’ left-sided cross on 21 minutes, but the header bounced downwards for a comfortable save for Kopric.

Paterson was again a key protagonist in creating the next chance. On 27 minutes, he collected a clever through pass from full-back Liam Smith and chipped a cross to the back post. Walker was in place for an acrobatic scissor-kick which beat Kopric but thumped back off the crossbar.

When Nicholson was fouled by Attard after evading the full-back and scampering into the box, referee Ville Nevalainen instantly awarded Hearts a penalty. It appeared to be the ideal moment to break the deadlock, ten minutes from the interval. When Buaben stepped forward, Drazen Besek, Birkirkara’s Croatian coach, passed on instructions to defender-turned-striker Edward Herrera that the penalty would go to the goalkeeper’s left.

Herrera got the message to Kopric and, after Buaben’s short run up, the Ghanaian could only watch in dejection as the keeper dived low to his left and parried the ball.

The goalkeeper emerged from his goal and was dispossessed by Walker outside the box on 42 minutes. From a tight angle, the winger tried a lofted effort which centre-back Emerson Marcellina headed clear from his own goal line.

Half-time brought a few groans from an increasingly unsettled home support. Much like the first leg, Hearts were controlling possession but couldn’t source a breakthrough. Hitting the crossbar and missing a penalty didn’t help the nerves, nor did a series of late tackles by Maltese players. The robust approach continued after the break, mostly whenever anyone in maroon ventured into the final third of the field.

Birkirkara didn’t look too intent on attacking but, first time they did after the break, they scored that vital away goal. A free-kick hoisted into the box found Herrera, whose powerful shot struck Igor Rossi. The rebound fell to Emerson but he couldn’t unleash a strike of his own. Bubalovic made no mistake with his attempt, a cool half-volley which soared high into the Hearts net beyond Jack Hamilton.

Maltese officials in the directors’ box celebrated loudly and uncontrollably. Those in the technical area did likewise. The result few people believed possible was now staring Hearts in the face with an early European elimination on the cards. They needed two goals to stay in the competition.

Nicholson tried to take the initiative. From the left wing, he cut inside an opponent to dispatch a raking right-footed drive from 20 yards. The ball struck the crossbar again. Moments later, substitute Juanma Delgado ran through on to Nicholson’s pass for a shot which Kopric pushed away. The rebound attempt from Arnaud Djoum was wayward and landed in the Gorgie Stand.

The notion that this wasn’t to be Hearts’ night was now firmly in place. When Herrera ran on to Plut’s pass in behind Rossi, a composed finish through Hamilton’s legs and into the net doubled the scoreline. This time, virtually the entire Birkirkara team ran around ecstatically on the turf, most of them running to take acclaim from the 56 away fans in the Roseburn Stand.

Hearts managed a fightback of sorts when Sammon glanced home his first goal for the club from Djoum’s right-sided cross. It wasn’t enough, though. The chorus of jeers at the final whistle underlined the discontent in the stands as Hearts became the latest Scottish side to suffer European humiliation.

Hearts (4-2-3-1): Hamilton; L Smith (Juanma 57), Ozturk, Rossi (Muirhead 73), Rherras; Buaben (Cowie 80), Djoum; Paterson, Walker, Nicholson, Sammon. Unused subs: Noring, Souttar, Zanatta, Godinho.

Birkirkara (4-1-3-2): Kopric; Attard, Bubalovic, Emerson, Zerafa; Sciberras; Scicluna (Camenzuli 90), Dimitrov (Guillaumier 73), Bajada (Jovic 65); Herrera, Plut. Unused subs: Djordjevic, Akpan, Buttigieg, Marotti.

Referee: V Nevalainen (FIN)

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