RFS 0-2 Hearts: This is how European away nights are supposed to feel as Jambos climb above Fiorentina in Group A

This is how European away nights are supposed to feel for Hearts: Drama, two fine goals, brilliant saves, three priceless Europa Conference League points and doubtless a crateload of beers to celebrate.

A 2-0 victory over RFS in Riga left supporters joyous as Lawrence Shankland’s penalty and substitute Alan Forrest’s classy late second goal decided the game. Craig Gordon’s three first-half saves were just as crucial but Hearts left Latvia knowing they had executed the job against the country’s reigning champions.

Disappointments against FC Zurich and Istanbul Basaksehir were forgotten as chants of delirious Scottish fans echoed into the night. This result puts Hearts above RFS and Fiorentina in Group A after the Italians lost 3-0 in Turkey.

It was a deserved result although the night was not without setbacks or nerves. RFS came close to scoring on a few occasions but Gordon refused to be beaten once again. A number of scoring chances were created and two was enough to dispense with the Latvians.

Hearts lost their influential centre-back Craig Halkett early in the match with what appeared to be a recurrence of his recent hamstring problem. He was back in the team after almost a month out since sustaining the injury in the club’s last European trip to face FC Zurich in St Gallen.

Much was made of RFS and their physicality with most of their players towering above 6ft. Yet at no point did they bully what was a fairly diminutive away team.

Darkness fell long before this 10pm kick-off in the Latvian capital as Hearts sought light at the end of a frustrating tunnel. Six defeats in the last seven matches belied the rapid progress made by the Tynecastle side last season.

Playing Latvia’s champions away offered no guarantee of redemption. RFS were also essentially playing away from home as their LNK Sporta Parks does not meet UEFA regulations.

RFS and Hearts in action at the Skonto Stadium in Riga.

The modest Skonto Stadium is a similar size to Livingston’s Tony Macaroni Arena and around 1,300 travelling supporters arrived in good spirits making plenty noise. The late start allowed more time to sample hospitality in Riga’s old town and most took the opportunity to do so.

After RFS drew 1-1 at Fiorentina last week, their danger was obvious. Halkett’s return was a welcome pre-match fillip for the visitors amid a chilly night air even though it was short-lived.

A number of attack-minded players were selected as Jorge Grant returned from suspension, while the RFS coach Viktors Morozs employed three forwards as Emerson Deocleciano and Tomas Simkovic flanked striker Andrej Ilic.

The imposing Serbian Ilic was the main threat with 20 goals in 33 games this year, however it was Emerson whose shot Gordon touched onto his right post inside two minutes. Hearts responded with winger Josh Ginnelly’s 25-yard attempt which the Latvian goalkeeper Pavels Steinbors pushed over his crossbar.

The Edinburgh side stroked the ball around looking for gaps in the RFS back line, although quick forward deliveries over the top by RFS towards Ilic did expose Gordon’s defence on a few alarming occasions.

Halkett departed before the 22-minute mark. He appearing to tweak the hamstring chasing a through ball with Emerson and was visibly distraught. Teenager Lewis Neilson was the replacement. RFS began finding more space in between Hearts’ defence and midfield as the first half progressed but their defence also remained vulnerable.

The visitors carved it open after 36 minutes. Ginnelly was enjoying a fine evening and skipped away from two opponents after collecting possession infield. He supplied Barrie McKay on the left who fed the underlapping Alex Cochrane for a low cross which Andy Halliday struck first time from seven yards. Steinbors managed to block with his left knee.

Another opening arrived moments later when Shankland flicked Ginnelly’s deflected cross into an open goalmouth without anyone there to convert. Two minutes from the interval Hearts’ breakthrough came when Elvis Stuglis slid in to block Halliday’s cross and clearly handled.

Referee Aleksandar Stavrev pointed to the spot and Shankland stepped up with a ruthless finish high into the top corner. It was an ideal juncture to seize the advantage. The striker should have scored again from Ginnelly’s low cross but couldn’t wrap his left foot around the ball at the back post despite the net gaping.

In between, Gordon’s heroics once again were vital. He stopped midfielder Tomislav Saric’s shot and then palmed away Ziga Lipuscek’s diving header from Simkovic’s free-kick with a superb one-handed save.

Some players’ emotions took over during a couple of heated exchanges in a chaotic ending to the first period. Hearts had control and proceeded to seek a second goal after the break whilst still living dangerously at times down the opposite end of the field.

Gordon was cautioned for handling outside his penalty box on 75 minutes but his opposite number was busy soon after. Steinbors saved from Shankland, Kingsley and Halliday in quick succession before watching his manager ordered to the stand for excessive protesting at officials.

The final 15 minutes were predictably nervy and tense as RFS exhausted themselves chasing an equaliser. Then they were caught with a sucker-punch. Neilson broke free and Cammy Devlin charged forward to feed Forrest for another cool strike low into the corner.

As 12am approached, it was Jambos dancing into the Riga night. This win has reinvigorated their Group A campaign and they now face Fiorentina back-to-back next month.

RFS (3-4-3): Steinbors; Jagodinskis, Stuglis, Lipuscek; Vlalukin (Sorokins 58), Panic, Saric, Mares; Simkovic (Friesenbichler 58), Ilic, Emerson.

Hearts (4-1-4-1): Gordon; M Smith, Halkett (Neilson 22), Kingsley, Cochrane; Devlin; Ginnelly (Humphrys 79), Grant (Haring 70), Halliday, McKay; Shankland (Forrest 79).

Referee: Aleksandar Stavrev (North Macedonia).

Attendance: 6,647.

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