Hearts’ return to the European stage after a six-year absence ended in defeat against FC Zurich in Switzerland, but manager Robbie Neilson called his side’s performance “remarkable”.
The Tynecastle club led through Lawrence Shankland’s penalty, only for two moments of relaxation in defense in two minutes in the first half to prove costly in a 2-1 defeat.
Still, the encounter remains finely balanced and Neilson insists his side have a “huge opportunity” to reach the Europa League group stage.
“I thought we were exceptional,” he told BBC Scotland. “We arrived at the Swiss champions, who had a magnificent season last season with international players.
“We took the lead and then lost two sloppy goals but stayed in the game and gave ourselves a huge opportunity in front of 20,000 rowdy, rowdy Hearts fans next week.”
The Tynecastle crowd will play their part next Thursday, but Hearts need to improve their performance after conceding two poor goals in quick succession, and they may have to do so without influential centre-back Craig Halkett.
The former Livingston man limped off after six minutes and exited the tunnel on crutches. Neilson later confirmed that he had modified his hamstrings which would suggest he will struggle to make the second leg.
In his absence, Nathaniel Atkinson was exposed for the first goal, which came from a punt straight down the field, and Halkett’s presence in the box was missed for the second as Hearts failed to release twice.
Zürich also had several other good chances and managed 12 shots from inside the box alone, while Hearts keeper Craig Gordon made an exceptional last-minute save to keep the score at 2-1.
But perhaps more concerning was the fact that Hearts were struggling to create against a side that had kept three clean sheets in 10 games this season, including two against a much weaker Linfield side.
Since open play, Hearts have registered less than an expected goal (xG) and, although they looked more threatening with Michael Smith playing balls to fellow substitutes Liam Boyce and Alan Forrest, rarely tested the Zurich goalkeeper .
All things considered, a one-goal deficit is a good result for Hearts to bring back to Edinburgh.
Will Tynecastle prove crucial?
Neilson is clearly confident his side have what it takes to improve and progress in the group stage alongside Manchester United and Arsenal.
Confidence comes from his players, but also from home advantage. Tynecastle will be full, tight and rowdy in the floodlights for their first European encounter in six years.
“Two years ago we were playing Queen of the South on a Friday night in the Championship,” added Neilson.
“We are here against the Swiss champions, we lost 2-1 but we put in a brilliant performance.
“We’re going back to Tynecastle next Thursday, the place is going to rock and we’ve given ourselves a good chance.”
“I am convinced that Hearts can progress” – analysis
Former Hearts midfielder Michael Stewart on Sportscene
Looking at the second leg, I’m confident Hearts can progress. If you can get that front four of Boyce, Shankland, Forrest and Barrie McKay early on, Hearts are a dangerous team. I haven’t seen anything from Zurich that scares me.
Former Hearts manager Craig Levein on Sportsound
If Hearts had opted for Zurich at 1-0… they are out of shape and they are vulnerable. I feel like there was a missed opportunity there. Tynecastle will switch next week but they will need to play with more confidence.