Change of venue, departing goalscorers, ex-Hibs boss: All you need to know about Hearts' potential Europa League opponents FC Zurich and Linfield

Now that the eagerly-anticipated Europa League play-off draw has taken place, all eyes turn to Thursday evening as a possible indication of where Hearts will be heading for the first stop on their European adventure.

By Craig Fowler
Tuesday, 2nd August 2022, 4:27 pm

Robbie Neilson’s side will meet either Northern Irish champions Linfield or winners of last season’s Swiss League, FC Zurich, with the latter heavy favourites to advance past the third qualifying round. Ahead of the first leg in Belfast, Linfield are a distant 8/1 to progress with the bookmakers, while Zurich are listed at a rather stingy 1/14.

The 126-year-old club play their home fixtures at the Stadion Letzigrund. However, with a concert booked for August 18, when the home leg is expected to take place, Zurich will instead play 80km away at Kybunpark in St Gallen. Though it has a smaller capacity (18,000) than the Letzigrund (26,000) it is a better place to watch football as the latter has a running track separating fans from the field of play. Besides, with Zurich averaging just over 13,000 at their own ground last term, there should still be plenty of tickets allocated to the travelling Jambos.

As reigning champions of a country which sits just five places below Scotland in the Uefa co-efficient rankings, Zurich are sure to represent a mighty hurdle for the Jambos in which to try and overcome. Last season’s reigning champions Young Boys made it to the Champions League group stages where they were undefeated against Manchester United across two games, including a 2-1 win in Switzerland.

Linfield faced Norwegian side Bodo/Glimt in this year's Champions League qualifiers. They won the first leg 1-0 at Windsor Park before succumbing to an 8-0 loss in Norway. Picture: Getty

By finishing top of the pile last term, and doing so at a canter with a 14-point advantage over second-place Basel, Zurich won their 13th ever Swiss title. This has them fifth all time behind Basel, Young Boys, Grasshopper and Servette, though they do sit tied in second with Young Boys for titles won this century with four each (Basel are way out in front with a whopping 12 triumphs since the year 2000).

Positively for Hearts, Zurich already look a shadow of the team which secured their first championship in 13 years. Manager Andre Breitenreiter masterminded the success a season after Zurich were almost relegated to the Swiss Challenge League for the second time in the past decade. He left in the summer to return to his native Germany and become manager of Hoffenheim. He was replaced by Franco Foda, a name which should be familiar to any keen Scotland fans among the Hearts support. Foda was in charge of Austria as they competed at Euro 2020 and then twice against Steve Clarke’s men in the last World Cup qualifying campaign.

Foda has been hamstrung with the loss of star striker Assan Ceesay, who left for Lecce on a free transfer this summer. The Gambian international combined for 30 goals and assists, more than any other player in the Swiss top flight and his absence has been keenly felt so far this season with Zurich failing to score, and picking up just one point, from their opening three games. They also crashed out of Champions League qualifying with a 5-4 aggregate defeat to Azerbaijani side Qarabag.

Though it would be a huge surprise if their toils continued past the two legs against Linfield, the Belfast club showed in Champions League qualifying that they can’t be taken too lightly with a shock 1-0 home-leg win over Bodo/Glimt – the side who knocked Celtic out of the Europa Conference League last term – before normal service resumed in Norway with a 8-0 thumping for the hosts.

Zurich facing off against Napoli in the last 32 of the Europa League at the Letzigrund Stadium in February 2019. Picture: Getty

Winners of the Irish League the past four seasons, Linfield are managed by all-time Northern Ireland international goalscorer David Healy. The former Rangers striker is a highly respected boss who is expected to one day make the move from Linfield across the Irish Sea to a bigger club in either England or Scotland. Since becoming manager in October 2015, he has led Linfield to the title in five of his six full seasons. This was after they spent four years on the outside looking in as Cliftonville and then Crusaders sat top of the pile. It was Cliftonville, former club of Hearts striker Liam Boyce, whom they pipped to the title last term by a single point.

The club’s general manager is former Hibs boss Pat Fenlon, a fact which is sure to delight Hearts supporters who will take a lot of pleasure in constantly reminded him about what happened after he led his team out for the 2012 all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final. A former Linfield player – he was the first Dublin-born catholic to sign for them – the 53-year-old has oversaw Linfield’s transition from part-time to a full-time model, which was fully put into place last year. The aim is to invest heavily in the club’s youth set-up, establish a pathway to the first-team and then sell their best young talents on at a profit.

One player they were forced into giving up without compensation was last season’s top goalscorer Christy Mazinga. The former Motherwell striker left at the conclusion of the campaign on freedom of contract, eventually signing for Hungarian club Zalaegerszegi TE. There remains plenty of ex-SPFL representation in the squad, including former Motherwell and Falkirk defender Ben Hall and ex-Inverness CT attacker Conor Pepper. St Johnstone striker Eetu Vertainen and St Mirren’s Daniel Finlayson are both on loan at the Blues.

Again, Hearts should receive plenty of tickets for the fixture with Linfield playing at Windsor Park, a ground belonging to the Northern Irish FA but on a plot of land owned by the club. Linfield’s highest attendance last year was just over 8,000 for a festive clash with Cliftonville. Windsor Park’s capacity reaches 18,000.

Former Hibs boss Pat Fenlon is Linfield's general manager. Picture: Getty

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