Fiorentina 5-1 Hearts: Stephen Humphrys strikes but Jambos' Europa Conference League hopes suffer a hit
The rolling hills of Tuscany symbolised a mountainous climb for Hearts with this comprehensive defeat to Fiorentina. Despite Stephen Humphrys’ well-taken consolation goal in the Stadio Artemio Franchi, the Edinburgh club’s hopes of reaching the Europa Conference League knockout phase are plummeting.
No-one realistically expected a result in Italy after Fiorentina’s comfortable win in Scotland last week. Hearts again lost an early goal and found themselves 4-0 down after a bruising first half. Striker Luka Jovic and captain Cristiano Biraghi put La Viola 2-0 ahead before forward Nico Gonzalez and midfielder Antonin Barak struck.
Humphrys reduced the deficit with a composed strike at the start of the second half. Nonetheless, overhauling the four-goal deficit was always unrealistic. Gonzalez’s late penalty restored it.
This result put second-placed Fiorentina four points ahead of Hearts with two Group A matches remaining. Even victory over RFS at Tynecastle Park later this month would leave Robbie Neilson’s side needing a result in Turkey against leaders Istanbul Basaksehir on the final matchday to have any chance of finishing in the top two. Basaksehir beat RFS to remain on course to win the section.
Neilson has always stressed that this European campaign is a learning experience for his players and this encounter became another tough – but potentially useful – lesson. Hearts performed better in the second half after a tactical change to three centre-backs, but by then the tie was over.
Artemio Franchi was a former UEFA president who is credited with helping establish the old European Cup Winners’ Cup. He also founded the oil company Angelo Bruzzi in 1954. This was an appropriately slick and well-oiled Fiorentina performance inside the stadium named in his honour in what is a modernised version of the tournament he influenced.
Hearts had no answer to the pace and interchanges between the Italians. They also lost another defender to injury in the shape of Nathaniel Atkinson, although replacement Toby Sibbick was one of their better performers on the night.
After partying all afternoon in Florence’s Piazza di Santa Croce, Hearts supporters had arrived at the stadium more in hope than expectation. They travelled in their thousands, prompting Fiorentina to hand over part of the ground normally reserved for home fans. Last week’s 3-0 humbling by the same opponents at Tynecastle Park exposed a considerable gulf in class but also left plenty room for improvement.
This was the glamour tie of the entire Conference League group phase for Hearts; a trip to a traditional Serie A heavyweight and the chance to mix with one of the biggest clubs in the tournament. October sunshine, Peroni and Moretti on tap in a city stacked with culture, this was the trip every Jambo prioritised when Group A was drawn.
There was no hint of trepidation as they sang and danced along to a pre-match drumbeat. Hearts were on a run of just three wins in their last 12 games but a slender degree of hope could be derived from Fiorentina’s stats. They had just two wins in 12 and failed to score in seven of their 14 fixtures this season.
Coach Vincenzo Italiano finds himself under pressure and needed to dispense with Hearts to keep critics at bay. His pulse rate would have quickened slightly when Stephen Humphrys struck a post in the game’s opening seconds after Sofyan Ambrabat carelessly gifted possession to Barrie McKay in his own half.
Christian Kouamé’s glancing header from Biraghi’s left-sided free-kick – superbly saved by Craig Gordon – was a portent of things to come. With Atkinson temporarily off the field for treatment, Jovic headed home Biraghi’s cross following a corner. For the second time in a week, Fiorentina were ahead against Hearts inside the first five minutes.
The Italians continued to find gaps in a visiting defence badly missing the injured Craig Halkett and Michael Smith, not forgetting the suspended Lewis Neilson. Rolando Mandragora lashed a left-footed strike off the post on 12 minutes before Atkinson was forced off by his earlier leg injury.
When Biraghi curled a perfect 22-yard free-kick over the Hearts defensive wall and into Gordon’s top corner with that left foot ten minutes later, the game was already over as a contest. The roar from Florence locals which followed was more in approval than excitement.
Hearts tried to use possession wisely when they had the ball. Jorge Grant and McKay combined to supply Humphrys for another run and shot which rolled just beyond the far post of Fiorentina goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini. They were creating but could not stop conceding at the opposite end.
The third goal came just after the half-hour mark when Antonin Barak and Kouamé passed their way through the opposition defence for Gonzalez to tuck a tidy first-time finish beyond Gordon at the back post. Then it was 4-0, Barak exchanging passes with Kouamé before a strike which reached the net via Gordon’s arm and a post.
The Hearts supporters in the ground’s south east curve didn’t relent with their singing. They were rewarded two minutes into the second period when Andy Halliday’s ball found Humphrys. This time the Englishman calmly stroked the ball beyond Gollini, bringing the loudest roar of the night from the away section.
Hearts had switched to a three-man central defence during half-time with Peter Haring dropping back beside Stephen Kingsley and Alex Cochrane. They seemed more comfortable, albeit Fiorentina had victory secured. Local fans were now finding their voice, too.
After Cochrane fouled Fiorentina substitute Riccardo Saponara inside the penalty area, Gonzalez converted from the spot to complete the scoring at 5-1.
Fiorentina (4-3-3): Gollini; Terzic, Milenkovic, Igor, Biraghi (Venuti 79); Barak (Bianco 79), Amrabat, Mandragora (Duncan 46); Gonzalez, Jovic (Saponara 46), Kouamé (Cabral 86).
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Gordon; Atkinson (Sibbick 16), Kingsley, Cochrane, Halliday; Haring, Devlin; Forrest (Kiomourtzoglou 46), Grant (C Smith 46), McKay (Henderson 75); Humphrys (Shankland 75).
Referee: Ivan Bebek (Croatia).