Robbie Neilson believes it would be a “phenomenal achievement” if Hearts could reach the Europa League group stage just two years after exiting administration, but he concedes the odds are stacked against his side.
The Tynecastle head coach was part of a Jambos side that reached the UEFA Cup group stage in 2004. However, in that campaign 12 years ago Hearts, managed by current director of football Craig Levein, only had to negotiate one two-legged tie, against Sporting Braga, to make it into an illustrious section containing Feyenoord, Basel, Ferencvaros and Schalke O4.
However, as a result of Scotland’s ever-diminishing coefficient, if the Jambos are to be involved in the group stage, which kicks off in September, they will first have to come through four two-legged ties, each of which are likely to get progressively tougher. They already have a good idea of what the first half of their route will entail after Monday’s draw for the first two qualifying rounds in Nyon, Switzerland. They will begin their mission against Estonian side FC Infonet before potentially facing either Siroki Brijeg of Bosnia or Birkirkara of Malta in the second qualifying round next month. The third qualifying round will feature the likes of West Ham United, Lille, AZ Alkmaar, Sassuolo and Hertha Berlin. Then, if they make it that far, comes a daunting play-off against a drop-out from Champions League qualifying or one of the top Europa League seeds in late August.
“It would be phenomenal to get back to that stage so soon after administration,” said Neilson. “For the players, it would be a great learning curve, great for their CV and for the prestige. I hope the club can get to the group stage and that the players can perform in the big games.
“The coefficient makes it really difficult for Scottish teams to get through but the only way to progress is to win games. If we can make it through the first round, great, the second round, even better. Then you start hitting the big teams. There are a lot of good teams out there in the Europa League. For any of us, Hearts, Aberdeen or Hibs to make the group stages, it would be a phenomenal achievement.”
Neilson has spent the past couple of days focusing on getting as much information as possible on Infonet. The Tallinn-based team were only formed in 2002 but, midway through their domestic season, they find themselves a point off the top of the Meistriliiga as they chase their first top-flight title. Neilson expects the Estonians to be stuffy opponents and is currently trying to get his squad up to speed at their St Andrews training base, where they will play a closed-doors friendly against Welsh side TNS today.
“It’s easy to get footage of Infonet’s games on Wyscout,” he said. “You can get all their games from the last couple of years, so we’ve watched some of their games online and spoken to some people in Estonia who know all about them. They have brought in a few Estonian internationalists recently and are a pretty experienced team with an average age of about 28, so they will sit in and make it really difficult and try and get a 0-0 when they come to Tynecastle. The onus will be on us to get a result.
“They have invested to get their international players in and have won their last six games on the bounce so they are on good form and in the middle of their season. That’s always the difficulty for Scottish teams at this stage, that you come up against a team in the middle of the season who are bang at it and ready to go.
“To overcome that, we have to have a good training camp, like we’re trying to do here in St Andrews, and be as ready as we can. We know we won’t be 100 per cent at it, as we would be in mid-season, but we need to be as close to that as we can get. They might be from a small football nation but they’ve spent a lot of money and brought in a few players so it’s going to be tough.”
The deadline for registering players for the first qualifying round has now passed, so Hearts will be going with the squad currently at their disposal. That means Jack Hamilton is likely to start in goal, with Paul Gallacher on the bench, although the club are monitoring Swedish keeper Viktor Noring and Israeli Danny Amos with a view to beefing up that department of the squad.
“We’ll be going with Jack and Paul as the goalkeepers for the European game. We’ve got two in on trial just now and they both look good. It’s early stages just now, though. Paul’s been doing a lot of work with them and figuring them out, and the reports we’re getting back from him is that they’re doing well. We’ll continue to monitor them.”
Neilson is hopeful that Perry Kitchen will be back for next Thursday’s match at Tynecastle. The American is currently on international duty at the Copa America, which concludes on Monday. “Hopefully we’ll get him back before the game,” said Neilson. “Although he’s not had a close season this summer, he’ll come straight back because he had a long break in the winter. The MLS season finished in November and he didn’t sign with us until well into February, so he had his break then. This year we’ve got a winter break, so that will be his break. He’s been training with the American national team but he’s not been playing, so he’ll be fresh.”