Scottish football’s travel problems in Europe continued tonight as Hearts were beaten by FC Zurich in the first leg of the Europa League play-offs.
It was the fourth attempt by a Premiership club to take something tangible away from home so far this season, but just like Rangers, Dundee United and Motherwell before them, they have come away empty-handed.
It briefly looked promising. Lawrence Shankland put the visitors ahead from the penalty spot but the Swiss champions responded with two quick goals from Adrian Guerrero and Blerim Dzemaili before the break.
Lawrence Shankland initially put Hearts past the penalty spot on the night
FC Zurich fought back through Adrian Guerrero and Blerim Dzemaili to win the game 2-1
The scoring margin could have been wider as Hearts took advantage of their chance in the second half.
They will at least have the chance to avenge that loss in what is expected to be a jam-packed Tynecastle next Thursday when a guaranteed £3million windfall to reach the Europa League group stage hangs in the balance.
The consolation prize will be progression to the Europa Conference League groups if they fail.
Zurich have had no problems looking at home this season having picked up just two points from five in their bid to retain their title, but Franco Foda’s side were clean on the ball and dangerous going forward.
Despite a vocal phalanx of Zurich supporters making their presence felt behind one of the goals, it was by no means a hostile environment for the visitors.
Zurich can usually count on more than 10,000 fans for its home matches, but with the first leg taking place in St. Gallen, 55 miles west of Switzerland’s biggest city, due to the double booking of its own grounds with a music concert, a crowd of 5,347 spectators. This figure included around 1,000 supporters who made the journey from Edinburgh.
Adrian Guerrero (left) equalized for Zurich in the first half after Shankland’s opener
Blerim Dzemaili (left) also scored for Zurich before the break as Hearts failed to equalize
Hearts boss Robbie Neilson opted for a more defensive formation for the clash. Forwards Alan Forrest and Liam Boyce exited despite the pair being key figures in the team’s strong start to domestic action.
Right-back Nathaniel Atkinson came on as a substitute while Stephen Kingsley received his first start of the season after a hamstring problem. Peter Haring was also restored to the first XI.
There was also a rejig in the Hearts line-up, with Barrie McKay taking a more central role in attack alongside Shankland instead of hugging the touchline.
Neilson, however, was forced into a substitution in the opening seven minutes when Craig Halkett went down with the injury. Toby Sibbick was his replacement.
Goalkeeper Craig Gordon was in fine form and kept Hearts level on several occasions
On a pitch that had been greased by torrential rain before and during the match, pitch conditions were tricky for both groups of players.
It was probably a factor in a rambling opening. As the teams gauged each other, there was little flow in the game.
Hearts were strong but conservative in getting numbers ahead of time. Zürich gradually made their way into the game and started asking the visiting rear guard questions.
Antonio Marchesano took a decent position just outside the box, but he clipped an effort wide of goal before Craig Gordon was called into action for the first time.
Dzemaili had plenty of power behind his free-kick and although the effort was straight on the Scottish No.1, Gordon first knocked the shot down before stifling the ball.
Hearts then made their mark by taking the lead in the 22nd minute from the penalty spot. They worked the ball to Atkinson and the Australian was stomped on by Ole Selnaes in an awkward challenge inside the box.
Hearts boss Robbie Nielson had a lot to ponder at the end of the first leg
The second leg will take place in Scotland next Thursday with Hearts looking to bounce back
After an initial delay, Polish referee Bartosz Frankowski pointed the spot, triggering protests from the Zurich players. Shankland kept his cool for 12 yards, sinking a weak effort into the bottom left corner despite Yanick Brecher guessing the right path.
Perhaps still furious with the penalty, Zurich’s response was emphatic as they netted two goals in two minutes.
The manner of the strikes was particularly infuriating for Neilson. Atkinson was responsible for the equalizer in the 32nd minute. The defender was completely wrong by getting caught under the long ball of goalkeeper Brecher. He ended up curling a header towards his own goal and Guerrero, hiding behind him, spun around and volleyed a left-footed volley past Gordon from close range.
Hearts were scared off and conceded again soon after. Haring’s attempt to intercept Guerrero’s low cross sent Dzemaili in and the veteran former Switzerland international fired a rising shot into the net from 12 yards out.
Good work from McKay created a chance for Jorge Grant inside the box before half time was over, but the Englishman had little power behind his drive and Brecher saved.
Neilson’s side will enter the Conference League group stages if they lose the overall tie
1000 Hearts fans made the trip to Sweden with a total of 5,347 spectators in St. Gallen
Michael Smith replaced Atkinson after the break and was forced to defend as Zurich created a handful of chances immediately at the start of the second half.
Former Hearts winger Donis Avdijaj had a shot deflected by Kye Rowles before Selnaes headed for the corner.
Avdijaj was involved again when he encountered a cross at the far post but the Austrian fired wide.
Another chance came and went for Zurich in the 67th minute. Guerrero should have scored after being picked off by Avdijaj at the far post, but he flew wide.
Hearts brought Boyce and Forrest in for the endgame and the latter fired wide.
Gordon then came to the rescue for Hearts in the 90th minute when he stopped Fabian Rohner.