'Hearts make 200 challenges per game with diagonals, aggression and crosses. No team in Latvia does this'

Electric scooters whizz down Riga's wide open boulevards, past trams and round the city's cobbled old town streets. They help generate energy, hustle and bustle in a very Soviet-style Latvian capital. Yet it is Hearts who need a spark here.
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They arrived last night following a two-hour delay in Edinburgh eager to halt a sequence of six defeats from seven games. Three of those were European fixtures. More than 1,000 Scottish supporters have travelled east for the second Europa Conference League Group A match knowing the stakes in this Baltic State.

If Hearts are to compete in this section, they require a result of some sort against RFS. This is a Pot 4 team hosting a club from Pot 3 in a tie which is very much in the proverbial mixer. Much has been made of Riga’s physicality and, if Hearts produce an energetic and high-tempo display, they will feel confident of achieving.

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Viktors Morozs, the RFS coach, is wary of opponents with a different style and knows recent results have been difficult for his counterpart, Robbie Neilson.

“We understand that sometimes results are not good in the league,” said Morozs. “Anything can happen in matches against opponents like Celtic or others. We will try to find something where we can use our pluses. We have the information on how to play.

“We don't have a team who plays similar football to Hearts. Hearts have around 200 challenges per game and no team in Latvia has these statistics. They run a lot, they are strong in diagonal passes, they like intensity, they are very aggressive and they are good at crosses.”

Asked outright how to Riga can win against Hearts, he smirked: “We have to play tiki-taka.” It certainly wasn’t Pep Guardiola tactics which earned Riga a 1-1 draw at Italian giants Fiorentina last week.

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“We didn't want to park a bus,” explained the coach. “We had to defend deep but we wanted the ball and we were ready to run to run. We got a chance and we used it. We have to make some changes because Hearts are a completely different team to Fiorentina.”

Riga FS coach Viktors Morozs wants to upset Hearts on Thursday.Riga FS coach Viktors Morozs wants to upset Hearts on Thursday.
Riga FS coach Viktors Morozs wants to upset Hearts on Thursday.

Scooters may be a quick and easy method of transport but there is an unshakeable natural energy developing among Riga’s modest support base.

From the Daugava River, up through the old town's Art Nouveau and 19th-Century wooden architecture to the modest Skonto Stadium, excitement is building that Morozs and his team can upset more than the Italians.

Neilson is conscious of Latvian danger but stated this game is not all-or-nothing for Hearts after a 4-0 home defeat by Istanbul Basaksehir in their opening match. “It's an important game for us, as they all are,” he said. “This will be difficult, Riga FS are very experienced. Since we were last in Europe they have played 15 European games.

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“We have to make sure we implement our gameplan here and hopefully that's enough to win the game, but I wouldn't say it's make-or-break. If we win, great. If we don't, then we move on to the next one. Riga tend to move into a back three even when they play a four, with Saric moving back in there. We are quite comfortable either way.”

Craig Halkett in action for Hearts earlier this season before injury forced him onto the sidelines.  (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)Craig Halkett in action for Hearts earlier this season before injury forced him onto the sidelines.  (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
Craig Halkett in action for Hearts earlier this season before injury forced him onto the sidelines. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

Centre-back Craig Halkett travelled with the Riccarton squad after almost a month out injured. Winger Alan Forrest is also here and could bring the touch of speed and pizzazz required.

“We went through a period two weeks ago where we had eight of our first-team players out,” said Neilson. “We managed to get most of them back now, which gives you stability and also some options if we need to change things.

“Last season we played 3-4-3, we had to alter that and hopefully we can get back to it with players coming back. That allows us to have stability and continuity through the season.

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“I keep going back to it, but the stability of the selection is important for us. Craig Halkett coming back in will help us, other than that it will be about getting back to what we are good at.

“That is passing the ball, getting onto good areas and getting our creative players on the ball high up the pitch. If we can do that then I'm confident we can get the win.

“We are still very early in the group stage. Yes, we were beaten last week and we were very disappointed with the result but we are only one game into a six-game group section. It's important that we just focus on this game and if we get a result it would be fantastic. That would put us into a good position before we face Fiorentina home and away.”

A sellout crowd of more than 7,000 is expected at the the Skonto Stadium, where the tight pitch is not dissimilar to Tynecastle’s. Neilson wants Hearts to seize upon that and feels they do not necessarily need to score first, although it would help.

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“It's important, yes, but it's not the big thing. The most important thing is getting the result at the end,” he acknowledged. “This is a different atmosphere to what we are used to. It's a slightly smaller stadium but the experience we've got in Europe is very limited.

“We have to make sure we take some of the stuff we learned from the Istanbul game into this one – don't be too expansive, make sure we stay in the game at times, but also make sure we take our chances. We had them last week and didn't take them.

“We didn't get a chance to go on the pitch because we were late arriving. It looks like a good surface and a tight pitch. Hopefully it suits us.”

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