BARELY visible through the dust and debris of an Easter Road defeat is UEFA’s Europa League logo. It is now Hearts’ sole target for the season.
Securing European football by finishing at least third in the Ladbrokes Premiership is the primary focus after Tuesday’s Scottish Cup exit in Leith.
The dejection of losing a replay against Edinburgh rivals Hibs will take time to disperse, naturally. Yet they know they must battle through the aftermath and digest the inevitable criticism over the next few days. Saturday’s league assignment against bottom-of-the-table Dundee United is already looming.
When the Europa League first-round draw takes place on June 20, Hearts desperately want to be there. Winning the Scottish Cup would have propelled them into the second qualifying round but that is no longer an option. Second or third place in Scotland’s Premiership permits entry to the first qualifying round, the first leg of which takes place on June 30.
The ridiculously early start to season 2016/17 won’t faze anyone at Tynecastle, especially not right now. Neither will the prospect of travelling to far-flung locations like Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan in the preliminary rounds. One avenue to Europe was closed off with Tuesday evening’s defeat by Hibs. The only other one open is through league qualification.
“Europe is the number one target. We have to be strong mentally and concentrate on the league, on third place and try to catch Aberdeen as well. We just have to focus on that and try to finish with a good season,” said Arnaud Djoum, the Hearts midfielder.
“We have to stick together, that’s very important, like a team. We have a lot of games in the league and we need to stay strong. This is a bad moment but we must keep going and focus on the league. I think we have the quality to end with a good season. We just have to stay together, stay focused.
“We will see how strong the team is, mentally. We have a lot of players with experience who have played at a high level. We just have to be together. We are a good team and we have a good mentality, so for now it is about the league.”
United’s 3-0 home defeat by Motherwell on Tuesday leaves them at an even lower ebb than previously. Mixu Paatelainen’s team are virtually doomed to relegation sitting 13 points adrift at the foot of the table. They will get no sympathy from Saturday’s visitors, who will arrive at Tannadice still smarting from their own midweek loss.
“When you lose a cup game like we did, in the next match you have to show it was just a mistake. The next game is very important for us and we will do everything to win that one,” said Djoum.
The Cameroonian offered an apology to Hearts fans for Tuesday night’s result. He and his team-mates knew how much Scottish Cup progress meant to supporters and admitted they are hurting just as much after losing to Jason Cummings’ solitary strike.
“We are really sorry we lost this game,” continued Djoum. “Everybody in the team really wanted to win and we are really disappointed for the fans and everybody at the club. This is football and we have to get over it and concentrate on the league.
“Everybody was very disappointed about the result because we know it was an important game for us and for the fans. It was a derby and the way we started the game was very bad. The first 15-20 minutes was not good enough. Afterwards we tried to play, to press and to score. We missed a few chances and the game was over.
“The manager said we started badly in the first 15-20 minutes, when we conceded the goal. After that we started to play but it was not enough and we didn’t score. We did everything to win this game, we pushed and pushed but we couldn’t do it. Maybe it was not our night. I think the small details went against us but that’s football. We have to accept it like a man and like a team and just keep going forward.”
Hearts are still irked by Blazej Augustyn’s red card at Easter Road. Referee John Beaton issued the Pole with a second booking 15 minutes from the end for throwing the ball away after a foul. Those in maroon argued that he was simply throwing it back to where the free-kick would be taken. Seconds later, goalscorer Cummings was also ordered off in the same manner as he kicked the ball away.
Djoum admitted the Hearts players were perplexed. “The first one from Blazej, I didn’t understand. He just gave the ball back after there was a foul. I don’t know why he [Beaton] gave him a second yellow card. It was really strange for me but I don’t want to speak about the referee. It was our fault. We should win this game. It’s not the fault of the referee.”
Ultimately, the Tynecastle side paid the price for conceding two late goals at home to Hibs in the first tie. Sitting 2-0 up with ten minutes to play, they were hauled back to 2-2 and thereby handing the initiative to Alan Stubbs and his players.
“The first game at home, we should have won. Everything started from there. We went 2-0 up and then, in the last ten minutes, we conceded two stupid goals. Then we went to Easter Road and started badly. We tried to do everything to come back but we are disappointed.”