Hearts have pinpointed Birkirkara striker Vito Plut as the biggest danger to their Europa League hopes. The Slovenian striker is one of several foreigners at the Maltese club and was their leading goalscorer last season.
Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, identified Plut as a major threat ahead of Thursday’s Europa League second qualifying round, first leg, in Malta. Hearts will put plans in place to combat the 28-year-old, who previously scored goals with Maribor and Gorica in his homeland.
Neilson is also aware of the influential Brazilian midfielder Marcelina Emerson. He admitted Hearts must prepare thoroughly for a testing encounter in searing heat. They are the seeded team in the tie after beating FC Infonet of Estonia in the previous round.
“It’s another step up against a better team. Birkirkara took West Ham to penalties last year so we know it will be tough,” Neilson told the Evening News.
“Plut is a good player. He’s played in the top league in Slovenia. He’s scored a lot of goals and he’s their main threat. They have a Brazilian sitting midfielder who is very good. Their two centre-backs are very aggressive.
“It’s more the style of play that makes it really difficult. A bit like Infonet at Tynecastle, Birkirkara will sit in and make it hard for you. They’ll wait for you to make a mistake and then hit you on the break. That’s the style of football out there.
“Scottish football is very high-octane, 100 miles and hour stuff. You can’t do that in Malta. They’re quite happy to sit in for 60 minutes, catch you on the break and win 1-0.”
Neilson may try to surprise the Maltese with his tactics. However, there is no plan at the moment to use right-back Callum Paterson in an attacking right-wing role again.
“We played him out on the right in Estonia and gave him that licence to get forward, using his pace and power against them,” explained Neilson. “I felt the Estonians’ key player was their left-back putting crosses in. If we negated that threat then Callum, with his pace and power, would cause him real problems.
“It’ll be a different game on Thursday with the temperature. There won’t be so much high-intensity running about. It will be a case of sitting in, keeping our shape and trying to go and press at the right times.
“Doing that with Callum again isn’t something we’ve looked at.”