Europa Conference League: Hearts set sights on Fiorentina and progression

Andy Halliday was one of the Hearts players who impressed in Latvia
Andy Halliday was one of the Hearts players who impressed in Latvia

Seven days ago, Hearts were thumped 4-0 on their own patch by Istanbul Basaksehir – a sixth defeat in seven games. Now, they are looking at Fiorentina with relish.

Thursday’s 2-0 win against RFS kickstarted the Tynecastle side’s Europa Conference League campaign, and breathed some life into a patchy opening to the season.

They are up to second in Group A after two games, in front of Fiorentina by three points ahead of the Italian side’s visit to Tynecastle in two weeks.

“It’s a real moment for Robbie Neilson,” former Hearts boss Craig Levein said on Sportsound. “If he lost this game tonight all sorts of problems are coming his way. They’re now in a situation where they’re talking about getting through in this group.

“From a place where they got hammered by Istanbul at Tynecastle. They’ve put on a display tonight that was entertaining and dogged.”

Hearts were tested in Riga, and had goalkeeper Craig Gordon to thank for three excellent first-half saves. Despite centre-back Craig Halkett’s injury after 20 minutes, they managed a first clean sheet in their 11th match of the season.

Furthermore, their attacking intent was rewarded as Josh Ginnelly, Barrie McKay, and Lawrence Shankland linked well with the midfield.

“It’s been a so-called sticky patch but we’re fourth in the league and second in the Conference League group,” Neilson told BBC Scotland.

“If that’s sticky, then I’ll take that the majority of the time. We know the league form can be better, but with the amount of injuries we’ve had all together. Hopefully that’s done and we can move on and be more of a squad now.”

Fiorentina there for the taking?

Fiorentina were the glamour name that came out of the draw alongside Hearts, but so far they have flattered to deceive.

After a shock draw at home to RFS, the Serie A outfit were hammered 3-0 in Istanbul and are on an eight-game winless run. Vincenzo Italiano’s side have only scored eight times in 10 games this season, and only three in their last eight.

On that form, Hearts will fancy a crack at them, especially given RFS got a draw in Florence. Regardless, the Hearts boss is not getting carried away.

“They are, they’re going to be big games for us,” Neilson said. “They’re a top team, let’s be honest it’s Fiorentina. We need to be at it 100%. We need to bring our A-game, and hope they don’t bring their A-game, or B-game or potentially even C-game.”

Next up for Hearts is Motherwell on Sunday, before the international break, and a chance to get back on track in the league.

With injuries and a packed schedule, that will be easier said than done. Former Hearts player Allan Preston believes other members of the squad need to improve to allow the team to stay consistent in all competitions.

“The players that Hearts can bring in on Sunday need to step up,” he said. “The likes of Gary Mackay-Steven and Nathaniel Atkinson will be back, as will Toby Sibbick. And add Robert Snodgrass to the equation as well.

“Hearts need that because they are going to the well Thursday-Sunday-Thursday-Sunday.”

Levein added: “Going to Motherwell when they’re in good form is a difficult thing to do. If they can win that and make it two wins in a row, I think they’re off and running again.”

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