HEARTS came from behind to record a narrow win over FC Infonet and set up a tentative trip to eastern Europe next week.
If the first leg of this Europa League first qualifying round was tense, the second will be no different in Tallinn next Wednesday.
The Estonians were spectacularly volleyed into the lead at Tynecastle by midfielder Jegveni Harin after 20 minutes. Prince Buaben’s penalty and an own goal by the visiting captain Andrei Kalimullin put Hearts ahead at the interval, a lead they maintained until the final whistle.
Their overall performance was less than convincing as the seeded team in this tie. Infonet’s gameplan to defend in numbers and hit on the break was perfectly executed, leaving the hosts frustrated. Hearts will, though, be grateful to travel to the Estonian capital with even a slender advantage after a difficult night.
This was the earliest start to a season in their history, with the calendar yet to flip over to July. Infonet have played 17 games of the Estonian Meistriliiga and sit just one point behind leaders Levadia. Their match sharpness showed right from kick-off. It wasn’t a fixture to be taken lightly from Hearts’ perspective, despite their status as overwhelming favourites.
Infonet were playing the first European tie in their 14-year history and they made light of travel disruption from the Baltics. It took six different flights to transport their squad to and from Edinburgh, non-EU players had visa problems and training kit went missing in transit. Yet they remained upbeat about their chances of upsetting the Gorgie natives. They did just that 20 minutes in.
Hearts’ start to the evening was notably nervous with several wayward passes and a lack of defensive cohesion. Infonet looked quicker and more aggressive, a result of being midway through their domestic campaign. By contrast, Hearts only began pre-season training two weeks ago and were unavoidably short of match practice.
Harin was a particular danger, making incisive runs from the left side of midfield. He intercepted one stray ball and charged through towards goal before shooting wide with his left foot. Vladimir Voskoboinikov then used his body to win a bouncing ball 18 yards out, but his lofted effort was well-anticipated by the new first-choice Hearts goalkeeper, Jack Hamilton.
Juanma, paired together with Conor Sammon in a two-man attack, glanced Paterson’s whipped cross from the right wide of the far post on 15 minutes.
When Infonet opened the scoring, it wasn’t a surprise given the balance of play. Dmitri Kruglov found space wide on the left for a teasing left-footed cross and Harin took to the air to volley a classic first-time finish beyond Hamilton from 16 yards.
A healthy crowd of 14,417 were in attendance eager to see new signings Sammon and Faycal Rherras make competitive debuts in maroon. This wasn’t what the locals expected – Estonians celebrating en masse after scoring the first goal of the night, and the first European strike in their history. Their advantage didn’t last long, though.
Seven minutes after Harin’s strike, Sammon linked with Juanma on the edge of the Infonet penalty area. The Spaniard’s return ball hit Vladimir Avilov on the hand and Icelandic refereee Vilhjalmur Alvar Thorarinsson pointed immediately to the spot. Buaben’s composed penalty sent goalkeeper Matvei Igonen the wrong way, much to Hearts’ relief.
Nine minutes before half-time came the critical second goal, which owed much to Paterson’s attacking instincts. He met Jamie Walker’s corner at the back post and knocked it goalwards with the inside of his right boot, but the ball ricocheted into the net via Kalimullin near the goal-line.
Yet even with the lead, Hearts still looked disjointed at the back. Hamilton produced a wondrous save to push Kruglov’s swerving drive for a corner, and moments later the sight of Paterson and Sam Nicholson in a stand-up argument showed how unsettled Robbie Neilson’s side were. Hamilton held another header from Voskoboinikov before the break.
The clear aim for Hearts in the second half was to secure at least one more goal to take to Tallinn for the second leg. Decent supply for Juanma and Sammon had been conspicuous by its absence during the first 45 minutes. There was more impetus about the hosts after some doubtless stern words from Neilson in the dressing-room, however they knew conceding again was not an option.
Sammon dispatched an effort from distance which Igonen collected comfortably. Then Hamilton had to parry Aleksandr Volodin’s vicious drive towards his near post at the opposite end. Each time Hearts did venture forward and looked threatening, the Estonians crowded the ball well to stifle any danger. They were clinging to a 2-1 scoreline which would leave them with a genuine chance of progressing to the second qualifying round.
Billy King’s introduction with 25 minutes remaining was intended to imbue those in maroon with extra spark. Tiredness began to take hold as the match entered its final stages, with both teams pressing for a potentially vital second goal. That made for a more open affair, but a creative final ball was often lacking when it mattered.
Kruglov decided to try a speculative attempt from distance on 86 minutes. His powered free-kick from 40 yards landed in the palms of Hamilton, who also gathered a more tame attempt by Voskoboinikov a minute later. That was the end of the scoring chances, of which there had been plenty throughout the night.
The Estonians had competed well and showed they carry a genuine threat to Hearts’ European aspirations. Anyone who felt this tie would be a mere formality will now be experiencing very different thoughts.
Hearts (4-4-2): Hamilton; Paterson, Ozturk, Souttar, Rherras; Nicholson, Buaben (Kitchen 78), Djoum, Walker; Juanma (King 64), Sammon. Unused subs: Gallacher, Rossi, L Smith, Todorov, Zanatta.
Infonet (5-4-1): Igonen; Volodin, Appiah, Kalimullen, Avilov, Kruglov; Mashichev (Haminu 60), Dmitrijev, Mosnikov, Harin (Kulinits 83); Voskoboinikov. Unused subs: Zelentsov, Vnukov, Golovijov, Domov, Rattel.
Referee: Vilhjalmur Alvar.