Hearts 2-1 RFS: Tynecastle side outdo Celtic and Rangers and earn more UEFA cash despite Conference League exit

Despite their Europa Conference League exit, this was an extremely profitable night of continental competition for Hearts. They earned another £430,000 in UEFA prize money and continue to outdo Celtic and Rangers as the only Scottish club to win in this season’s European group stages.

Beating the Latvian champions RFS with a 2-1 victory takes their Conference League points total to six, guaranteeing they will finish with a greater total than either of the country’s Champions League representatives from Glasgow. Of course, the difference in standard of the two tournaments must be taken into account. Lawrence Shankland and Andy Halliday scored to put Hearts 2-0 ahead inside 12 minutes, but a screamer from Kevin Friesenbichler near half-time restored belief within RFS that they could garner a result in Edinburgh.

Both teams knew before taking the field at Tynecastle that they were already eliminated from this tournament. Fiorentina’s 2-1 success against Istanbul Basaksehir in Group A’s early kick-off secured progress for the Italians alongside the Turks as the top two in the section. Hearts and RFS were therefore playing for nothing more than pride and prize money in the battle for third spot. That now belongs to Hearts, who finish the group phase where they were expected to having been a Pot 3 club in the Conference League draw, with RFS in Pot 4.

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It must be said that this was far from a straightforward win. RFS forced Craig Gordon into several important saves and struck the crossbar through the useful Friesenbichler in the second half. The goals in the opening 45 minutes proved decisive in the end and the Gorgie support were in full voice towards the end of the evening. A late red card for the RFS defender Vitalijs Jadodinskis added to the mood.

Following Hearts’ 2-0 victory in Riga last month, they remained the only team RFS hadn’t taken points from in Group A. The Latvians were in Edinburgh aiming to usurp their hosts in the table and climb into third place, but they were confronted by opponents firmly in the mood early on. The Latvians held a significant height advantage and sought to exploit it at every set-play. On the ground, it took Hearts less than three minutes to play their way to a 1-0 advantage.

The reinstated midfielder Jorge Grant found Josh Ginnelly in an advanced right-sided position, and the English winger rolled an inviting cross into Shankland’s path. The striker slid in to prod home a close-range finish and collided heavily with the RFS goalkeeper Pavels Steinbors in the process. If this game might have gone flat as a result of the Fiorentina-Basaksehir score, that early strike certainly helped fuel a pretty boisterous atmosphere.

Gordon produced an important one-handed save to deny the visiting defender Ziga Lipuscek a quick equaliser from a corner. Instead, it was Hearts who claimed the game’s second goal on 12 minutes. Grant was again heavily involved as he influenced early proceedings. His attacking run and reverse ball found Halliday for a low left-footed attempt which deflected off centre-back Vitalijs Jagodinskis and beyond Steinbors into the net.

The two-goal advantage gave those in maroon command of this fixture. They stroked the ball around confidently while RFS seemed reluctant to engage and close down with much aggression. Lipuscek was an exception as he bodychecked Grant to stop the Englishman scampering past with the ball near the halfway line. That earned a deserved yellow card from the Belgian referee Bram van Driessche. It didn’t stop Lipuscek screaming in the official’s face in disgust, thus earning a further verbal reprimand.

Hearts goalscorers Lawrence Shankland and Barrie McKay celebrate against RFS at Tynecastle.

Steinbors was airborne to push Stephen Kingsley’s dipping free-kick over his crossbar after 31 minutes. Thereafter, the intensity dropped out of Hearts’ play as they began to concede possession cheaply in key areas of the pitch. The visitors took advantage to haul themselves back into the match. From left-back Petr Mares’ high cross, striker Andrej Ilic’s headed knockdown found Friesenbichler. He took a touch and dispatched a raking 25-yard right-footed effort high into Gordon’s net for a half-time scoreline of 2-1.

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That added a degree of tension to proceedings. The 42 RFS fans who had journeyed to Scotland knew their side were now just one goal away from levelling having looked totally overwhelmed for most of the first half. The Hearts players could not afford to let their two-goal lead evaporate completely. When Friesenbichler let rip from distance again on the hour mark – this time with the left foot – the ball careered off the underside of the home crossbar as Gordon dived in vain. Clearly, the Latvians weren’t finished.

Ginnelly tried his luck with a similarly impressive shot at Tynecastle’s Gorgie Road end which Steinbors’ fingertips pushed over for a corner. Hearts’ task became slightly more difficult when Kingsley trudged off after pulling a hamstring, yet another injury to add to the Riccarton catalogue. Lewis Neilson took over for the final 22 minutes. Gordon held Ilic’s header before Shankland glanced McKay’s cross off the post at the opposite end. RFS might have had more joy from some attacks but for the timely tackling of man-of-the-match Toby Sibbick in the centre of the home defence. He enjoyed a fine night overall and it was fitting that large sections of supporters chanted his name several times in appreciation.

The 6ft 6in Lipuscek was thrown into attack for the final minutes but could not plunder an equaliser. Jadodinskis received a straight red card for serious foul play on Hearts substitute Euan Henderson, and then the whistle confirmed Hearts’ victory. It also ended a run of six games without a win for the Edinburgh club.

Hearts (4-1-4-1): Gordon; M Smith, Sibbick, Kingsley (Neilson 68), Cochrane; Kiomourtzogou; Ginnelly (Henderson 88), Grant (C Smith 64), Halliday, McKay (Forrest 88); Shankland.

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RFS (4-2-3-1): Steinbors; Sorokins (Vlalukin 68), Jagodinskis, Lipuscek, Mares; Jatta (Saric 72), Panic; Simkovic (Zjuzins 68), Friesenbichler (Rakels 81), Emerson; Ilic.

Referee: Bram van Driessche (Belgium).

Attendance: 15,863.