Hearts aim to exploit advantage in Zurich tie but battered Dundee United come first

Waiting for Christmas probably seems less tortuous for Hearts fans than waiting for this European campaign to begin. Four months is certainly a long time in Continental football.

The intricacies of FC Zurich’s tactics and threat will be discussed in depth at Riccarton over the coming days. For now, priorities demand order and focus around Sunday’s Premiership match against Dundee United. Manager Robbie Neilson wouldn’t have it any other way.

April’s celebrations at Hampden Park after beating Hibs in the Scottish Cup semi-final feel like years ago. That match secured Hearts’ Europa League play-off place via their place in the final, allowing supporters, players, coaches and staff to plan their imminent return to UEFA competition.

Swiss champions Zurich present a stern test, even at the relatively neutral venue of the Kybunpark in St Gallen. However, United arrive at Tynecastle Park on Sunday seeking league points and much-needed reinvigoration for decimated egos.

Their own European adventure is over after Thursday night’s 7-0 humiliation in Alkmaar. The 7-1 aggregate defeat prompted manager Jack Ross to apologise to supporters, and one of his Tannadice predecessors even offered some condolence.

“I still speak to a number of people at Dundee United. I texted them and said they need to put it in perspective,” revealed Neilson. “Three years ago, they were playing against Championship teams. They have progressed massively and had a brilliant result last week [winning the first leg 1-0]. It was probably a 25-minute period where they got turned over [in Alkmaar] but that can happen against these European teams.”

He expects a reaction in Gorgie. “They have quite a bit of experience in that team – [Charlie] Mulgrew, [Ryan] Edwards, [Steven] Fletcher, [Tony] Watt. I'd expect them to be ready to come at it and try to make amends for Thursday night.”

The Hearts players know what is expected of them. All thoughts of a midweek European assignment are banished until after United’s visit. “We have a sellout on Sunday, the place will be rocking and we are expected to win. The players have to understand that,” said Neilson.

The Hearts management team of Robbie Neilson, Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest.

“The guys in the team on Sunday have to make sure they stay in the team for Thursday so there is that competitive side. You have to win every week at Hearts. You can't think about a game two weeks down the line. You need to win this one and then take care of the next one.”

That doesn't mean coaching and analysis staff aren’t building dossiers. The Swiss side carry alternative dangers to any Scottish opponent Hearts would encounter, and background work is well underway at Riccarton.

“We've started to watch a wee bit of them. They won the league last year, did really well, then lost the manager and a couple of players,” explained Neilson. “They changed their style a wee bit – more counter-attacking last year but more possession-based now.

“It's going to be a tough tie, no doubt at all, playing against the Swiss champions. They have good international players within that group and we need to bring our best game to give ourselves any chance.

“We had somebody in Belfast for the first leg and somebody in Zurich for the second. Our analyst has watched them as well so we will be ready for when it comes. We need to win on Sunday first.”

Franco Foda, the former Austria national coach, is now in charge at Zurich. Winger Donis Avdijaj is a former Hearts player who scored twice in Thursday evening’s 3-0 victory over Linfield in the Europa League third qualifying round. That completed a 5-0 aggregate result and progress to face Hearts.

Others such as attacking midfielder Antonio Marchesano and forward Tosin Aiyegun are key attacking weapons for Zurich. “It's a different challenge. They have a lot more pace in their team than the majority of teams here,” admitted Neilson. “Rangers and Celtic are more possession-based with sustained attacks. Zurich have more pace in wide areas.

“They played 3-4-3 on Thursday so they have that explosion in wide areas. We probably haven't come up against that, really, against a team that will sit a wee bit and then come after you. It will be different but that's part of playing in Europe. We are looking forward to it.”

Playing at St Gallen’s stadium because Zurich’s is booked to stage a concert next weekend should help Hearts’ cause. St Gallen’s Kybunpark has a capacity of 17,317 in comparison to 26,104 at Zurich’s more open and expansive Stadion Letzigrund. Whilst the hosts may well curse the change of venue as they attempt to reach the Europa League groups, the away side are fully intent on using the situation to their advantage.

“It will almost be like an away game for both teams,” said Neilson. “They played there a couple of weeks ago and got beaten 2-0. It’s a different kind of stadium and it will be different for them. We’ve had that experience with Murrayfield. Even though it’s just around the corner it’s a different stadium, a different environment. So I hope it helps us.”

Another useful asset is, of course, Tynecastle. The stadium will be packed for the return leg on August 25 and the Hearts support don’t mind a touch of hostility towards foreign opponents. “It’s massive for these European nights, especially if the second leg is at home,” Neilson said of his club’s home.

“You look at Celtic and Rangers when they have the second leg at Parkhead or Ibrox and they have that intensity, that atmosphere. It drives them on. I would expect Tynecastle to be the same. It can be a weapon for us. If we get full houses the atmosphere will be rocking and that will help us.”

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