Land of the Giants: Hearts' possession plan to counter Riga FS in Latvia
Physiotherapy work at Riga FS might be relentless during this European adventure. Players complaining of sore backs from stooping to walk out of the Skonto Stadium tunnel will be fairly common.
Hearts step into Land of the Giants on Wednesday, 24 hours ahead of the Europa Conference League Group A second matchday. Opponents RFS – Rīgas Futbola Skola to use their full title – are a group of physical specimens whose brute strength and intimidating presence helped earn a draw at Fiorentina last week. Enough said.
RFS stage European ties at Skonto’s home ground because their LNK Sporta Parks stadium is too small. It is comparable in standard to Riccarton’s public pitches with small stands and a capacity of just 2,300. Hence RFS moving across the Daugava River to host continental opposition.
Players towering well above 6ft tall might struggle getting through the aforementioned tunnel, but thereafter they stride around purposefully in their adopted European arena. RFS are Latvian champions, regulars in UEFA competition and know the territory well. Hearts should be wary.
“They are a very well-organised team,” said the Edinburgh club’s manager, Robbie Neilson. “They switch between a back three and a back four but they have real physicality. Their back three, goalkeeper, centre midfielders and striker are all well over 6ft tall.
“It’s real physical presence, they are good at set-plays and defend very deep. They have a threat in wide areas when they break, so it’s another test for us. It will be different to the Istanbul game because I don’t expect Riga to dominate possession as much as Istanbul do. It’s up to us to keep possession and break them down.”
A 4-0 home defeat by Istanbul Basaksehir just last week provided Neilson and his squad with a rude awakening to the ruthless nature of European group-stage football. RFS won’t show any mercy.
Managed by the former Latvian internationalist Viktors Morozs, they dropped from Champions League to Conference League over the summer. Morozs himself stands 6ft 1in tall and prioritises physicality in his teams, however they can also execute an incisive counter-attack on the ground.
Brazilian forward Emerson Santana Deocleciano links well with 6ft 2in Serbian striker Andrej Ilic, a 22-year-old product of Partizan Belgrade’s youth academy, in a 3-4-3 formation. Behind them is where height and physique could overpower more diminutive Jambos like Cammy Devlin, James Forrest and Barrie McKay.
Riga’s first-choice defence comprises Vitalijs Jagodinskis at 6ft 3in, a 30-year-old Latvian internationalist, plus 6ft 4in Elvis Stuglis, who is 29 and also a Latvian internationalist. Then there is the hulking 6ft 6in Slovenian Ziga Lipuscek, who is 25.
Both wing-backs are 6ft tall – the 25-year-old Latvian internationalist Vladislavs Sorokins and 31-year-old Czech internationalist Petr Maraes.
In case any of the above are unavailable, two sizeable Latvian caps will deputise. Kaspars Dubra is 31 and 6ft 3in, while Vitalijs Maksimenko is 31 and 6ft 1in. Maksimenko carries experience of British football after playing for Kilmarnock on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion.
In midfield, RFS are anchored by 6ft 4in Serbian internationalist Stefan Panic and 6ft 1in Croatian Tomislav Saric. They are aged 29 and 32 respectively and have been around the European block a few times.
For appropriate good measure, both goalkeepers are also 6ft 3in – 33-year-old Lithuanian internationalist Vytautas Cerniauskas and 36-year-old Latvian internationalist Pavels Steinbors.
The two reserve centre-backs, Dubra and Maksimenko, both played on Monday as a much-changed RFS team beat Spartaks 3-0 in the Latvian Virsliga. Clearly Europe is a bigger priority.Riga are eager to prove they are more than sacrificial Pot 4 lambs in this section. Ilic’s goal in Florence was a decent start.
“It was an amazing result,” said Neilson. “They were very disciplined, camped in and hit on the break with the front three. Getting a point was massive for them. There are areas where they look good but there are also areas we feel we can get at.
“At this level, I don’t think there is such a thing as whipping boys. Those teams get whittled out in the qualifiers. Riga have a lot of international players with different countries, they have played about 25 European games since we last played in Europe in 2016.
“They have that experience in their group so we need to be respectful of that. If we play well, we are confident we can take something.”
Most of Riga’s starting line-up picks itself but injuries have prevented Hearts enjoying anything like the same consistency. Craig Halkett and Alan Forrest are injury doubts, Kye Rowles, Liam Boyce and Beni Baningime are out with longer-term issues.
“We have missed consistency of selection at the back, that’s been the problem for us,” admitted Neilson. “I don’t think we’ve gone two games in a row with the same defensive line at any point this season.
“That always makes it difficult but that’s just the way it is at the moment given the injuries we have picked up. Hopefully with guys getting back we will have a bit more consistency in that area.”
The Basaksehir result should help inexperienced Hearts learn quicker in the European environment. “Yes, massively,” agreed Neilson. “We have spoken about maintaining our discipline in these European games, especially in the middle of the park.
“If you are a bit too open then these good teams just pop the ball round about you. There is a lot of stuff to learn from it.
“It’s part and parcel of football and we have to take it on the chin. We need to keep fighting away. We played against a very good team, the scoreline at the end was disappointing, but we need to realise we are playing at a very high level. It’s one that we need to aspire to.
“You can’t be too negative on it. Obviously, there is negativity in there because we want to perform better for the full 90 minutes. It’s a big learning curve for everyone.”