One solitary two-legged tie on August 23 and 30 stands between Hearts and a place in the tournament’s lucrative group stage alongside more European luminaries. Yet it will be a mammoth task. The above teams carry frightening reputations and are battle-hardened from years of European conflict. Outwith the Champions League, they are the cream of the continent’s crop.
Other possible opponents offer greater chance of progress and less chance of heart palpitations. Racing Genk, Anorthosis Famagusta, and Lech Poznan could be amongst the play-off seeds if they successfully negotiate earlier qualifying rounds. Unfortunately, Hearts are certain to be in the unseeded pot for the draw in early August so must face a seeded team.
They aren’t likely to complain given the alternative. Winning the Scottish Cup propelled the club from the Europa League’s second qualifying round to the fourth and final one. Had they failed to beat Hibs at Hampden Park on Saturday, they would have started in the competition’s second qualifying round by dint of finishing fifth in the Scottish Premier League.
That would have meant beginning season 2012-13 with a first-leg European tie on July 19, the return match coming a week later on July 26. Bearing in mind pre-season training would have had to start on June 17, and the SPL does not begin until August 4, the appetite for such a scenario was understandably weak at Tynecastle. The Scottish Cup final sorted everything out.
Winning the Cup against Hibs was both memorable for everyone involved and helpful to Hearts’ European ambitions. Players are now due to return to Riccarton in early July, around a month before the curtain raises on the new SPL campaign. Up to seven weeks off will be certainly welcomed by a squad which just completed a tumultuous, but ultimately triumphant, year.
Players can head off on an extended summer break knowing a mouth-watering European tie has been earned, with the carrot of six Europa League group games on offer as further reward. Entering European competition towards the end of August means they will be well prepared having avoided the unwanted scenario of beginning the new season with a tie against foreign opponents fully three weeks before the league kicks off.
Other clubs definitely taking their place amongst the Europa League play-off seeds are CSKA Moscow, Bordeaux, Stuttgart, AZ Alkmaar, Hapoel Tel-Aviv and AEK Athens. Three of those are former European foes of Hearts and a reunion would be most welcome. Again, all would present awkward opposition and would be unlikely to get overly flustered meeting a team from Scotland.
Recent flirtations with Europa League play-offs haven’t been pleasant for those of a maroon persuasion. Ties with Dinamo Zagreb and Tottenham Hotspur provided fans with memorable trips to Croatia and London, however their team was well beaten by both clubs over two legs. This year is likely to prove no less daunting. But a trip to Milan’s San Siro Stadium, Marseille’s Stade Velodrome or Anfield in Liverpool would make another unforgettable stopping point on the Jambos’ European trail. Then there’s the prospect of visiting the Estadio Jose Alvalade in Lisbon with former Sporting coach Paulo Sergio leading Hearts.
Many permutations are possible in European draws. One thing is for sure – an exciting summer is lying in wait for the Tynecastle support.