Entering a win-or-bust European tie against Maltese opposition, Hearts are where they should be: In control. The key is not to become complacent or impatient.
Drawing 0-0 with Birkirkara in Malta means any manner of victory at Tynecastle in tomorrow’s second leg guarantees passage to the Europa League third qualifying round.
Drazen Besek, the Birkirkara coach, has stated his team are inferior to Hearts; that a goalless draw at home was a good result and that “we know who we are playing against”. This may be mind games from the Croatian but his Tynecastle counterpart, Robbie Neilson, won’t be fooled either way.
Neilson knows his team’s destiny rests in their own hands. “They [Birkirkara] can say what they like to be honest. It will be us who win or lose it,” he said. “It’s about how we perform tomorrow night. If we perform well, we should have enough to get through.”
A different approach to routine matches in the Scottish Premiership will be vital. Hearts’ three Europa League ties so far – two against Infonet of Estonia and last week’s first leg with Birkirkara – have all been somewhat unpredictable. Such is the way of European football.
“You probably need to show more patience and be more tactical,” explained Neilson. “When you play in the Scottish game, it is really open and everything is 100 miles an hour and it is all about trying to win the game.
“When you play in Europe, a lot of teams are not really interested in winning; they just don’t want to get beaten. They want to see it through to the next leg, like Birkirkara did. They were content with a 0-0 to try and take it to the next leg.”
Coping with that alternative mindset is one of the challenges Scottish clubs face on the continent. Neilson and his director of football, Craig Levein, are trying to instil a mentality at Hearts which will suffice both at home and abroad.
“We speak regularly about ideas about what I think and what he thinks,” said Neilson. “But it is a different kind of football and it’s about trying to get that over to the players. Even our experienced players, such as Don Cowie and Conor Sammon, haven’t played in Europe before, so it takes a little bit getting used to.
“In the previous game against Infonet, when we came in at half-time over there winning 3-0, the boys were asking ‘what’s the score overall, what do we need to get and what do they need to get?’. It’s trying to work out all those sorts of things. Everything’s a learning curve for us all.”
Tomorrow is likely to be a lesson in how to break down a stubborn and often rigid defence. Birkirkara’s multi-national squad sets them apart from the stereotypical team of Maltese part-timers.
“There’s a balance. These teams are good,” said Neilson. “Teams in Europe are getting better, the smaller nations are getting better. A lot of the international teams are good because their players play all across Europe and even their teams, they have invested in the teams, which makes it difficult.
“It is a different style of football. I think British football is unique compared to the rest of Europe. That’s maybe where we in Scotland find it difficult going into these games.
“If you look at the Europa League results in the last round, there were very big scores. There were no 5-0s or 6-0s. I think the only one was Brondby v Valur. Other than that it was very tight. Games are so tight now and so tactical.
“There are teams out there who are part-time but they are still very well organised. If you go to Sweden and you’re part-time, part-time players train five nights a week and play at weekends. They are really full-time, it is just that they have jobs. They are all organised and fit. It’s a cliché but they are no easy games in Europe.”
Neilson will focus more on his own players’ capabilities tomorrow. Attack-minded ones such as Jamie Walker and Arnaud Djoum are expected to play a pivotal role in trying to prise open the Maltese defence. With the American midfielder Perry Kitchen nursing a hamstring complaint, Cowie will anchor midfield.
“I think patience is key, but also we need to make sure we play at a good tempo and move the ball quickly and try to win the game,” added Neilson. “It will be difficult, in that we expect Birkirkara to come over and sit in, similar to what they did in their home leg.
“The onus is on us to try to break them down, but we have to try to do that without over-committing. It will take patience from everyone. Yes, we want to win the game and we want to score in the first five minutes, but it might take 85 minutes.
“These teams are very good at sitting in and making it difficult for you. We have to understand that and we have to make sure we have tempo in our game and move the ball quickly. But we can’t be gung-ho.”
Birkirkara’s style and tactics would seem fairly clear-cut. They will try to defend in numbers with either a 4-5-1 or a 5-4-1 formation. Besek may not have the required depth to his squad to conduct a major reshuffle and surprise Neilson.
“They might be a different team away from home, we’ll have to wait and see. I do expect them to play a similar kind of game. We know their striker [Vito Plut] is a good player. He caused us a couple of problems by making good runs when we were over there. It will be about how we play and how we go about the game that will determine whether we win the game or not.”
The ability to seize control can make or break a European tie. Hearts appear in no mood to relinquish their calm authority.