What can Hearts expect from Europa Conference League opposition?
For the first time in 16 years, Heart of Midlothian are in group stage European football. Seán McGill examines their opponents from Turkey, Italy and Latvia in Group A of the Europa Conference League.
Though the tinge of disappointment of Thursday’s Europa League exit at the hands of Swiss champions FC Zürich may linger over Gorgie for some time yet, a new day was a new dawn for the Jambos. The draw for the Europa Conference League group stages on Friday signalled a start of a fresh chapter for Robbie Neilson’s team, and the start of welcome adventures for a Hearts support that has stuck by its club like few others in European football.
Desperately waiting for those names to be announced so the preliminary preparations for their continental journey could begin, Hearts fans now know they’ll head to Instanbul, Florence and Riga on their first European group stage venture since 2004/05.
What can they expect to be met with in Group A as they travel to the capitals of Turkey and Latvia, as well as one of Italy’s most beguiling cities? We’ve got you covered.
With the draw emanating from the Turkish capital, it seemed fitting that the first team out the hat would be İstanbul Başakşehir. Nicknamed The Grey Owls, the club raised eyebrows across the continent in 2019/20, as they picked up the first league trophy in their history following a thrilling title race in the Süper Lig.
Following a fourth-placed finish last term, it has been an arduous qualification process for Başakşehir. Israeli side Maccabi Netanya were the first to be dispatched, before breezing past Icelandic outfit Breiðablik, who were eliminated at the same stage last season by Stephen Glass’ Aberdeen.
Royal Antwerp posed a stern test in the Play-Off round, picking up a draw in Turkey, but were blown away in Belgium as The Owls flew to a 3-1 victory.
Former Inter Milan and Newcastle United midfielder Emre Belözoğlu must contend with a now-expectant and always fervent support in his first permanent managerial job. A talented attacking trident may only raise those expectations, with Nacer Chadli and Bertrand Traoré likely to find themselves either side of one of the game’s most effortlessly graceful midfielders of the last decade, Mesut Özil.
The former Germany international will be tasked with filling the creative void left by Edin Višća, who departed for eventual champions Trabzonspor in January, en route to racking up the joint-second most assists in the top flight.
After failing to take their chances against Zürich on Thursday, Hearts will likely have to be more clinical to break down a Başakşehir defence that conceded the fewest goals in the Süper Lig last season, alongside the league winners. With no significant departures in that area, they have added the insurance policy of midfield combatant Lucas Biglia – the veteran midfielder known best for his battling presence in Serie A for Lazio and AC Milan.
Fierce competition and an even fiercer support, the meetings with the group top seeds promise blockbuster viewing for not just Jambos, but football fans alike.
Now, here’s the mouth-watering tie many onlookers to Thursday’s draw was hoping for. A giant of the Italian game, the inconic purple strip will be on show as Hearts take on Fiorentina.
Not only are I Viola two-time Scudetto winners and six-time Coppa Italia winners, they also boast European silverware to their name, having lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1961, romping past Rangers 4-1 across the two-legged final.
It will be a first foray into Europe for the club’s gloriously named manager Vicenzo Italiano, who joined Fiorentina last summer after guiding Spezia to the top flight. The 44-year-old has transformed the Florence club into one of Italian football’s best possession-based sides, with Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli the only team to see more of the ball on average in Serie A last season.
Achieving a seventh-placed finish, Fiorentina snuck past The Netherlands’ FC Twente in the Play-Off round this week, and will now be many pundits’ favourites to top Group A in the Conference League.
Following the departure of Dušan Vlahović to Juventus in January, it was imperative that Italiano sought out a replacement for the striker, who still comfortably finished as the club’s top goalscorer despite leaving halfway through the season.
The club have put their stock into the restoration project that is Luka Jović, who still looks shot of confidence after his ill-fated spell at European Champions Real Madrid. Once one of the continent’s most promising frontmen, the 24-year-old will be hoping to recapture the form he displayed at Eintracht Frankfurt, and an opening day goal against Cremonese will do the young striker the world of good heading into the new European campaign.
A great deal of concentration will prove vital for Hearts as their Italian opposition likely dominate the ball, but a smart game plan and killer instinct on the counter could see the Jambos grab a result that would send shockwaves across European football.
Has a European fixture ever been contested over custody of an emoji? That might just be the case as Hearts take on FK RFS of Latvia, the country’s maroon and white flag having long been adopted by the Gorgie faithful online.
The Latvian champions have had an enthralling journey to the group stage. In a result that might amuse some Hearts fans, they dispatched of Maltese side Hibernians in the third-qualfying round, before engaging in a two-legged thriller with the winners of Northern Ireland’s own Premiership, Linfield.
The Blues from Belfast were coasting at 2-0 away from home, before being hit by a double sucker punch in the 88th and 96th minutes to leave Latvia with the scoreline level. Calamitous defending was their undoing at the death in the second leg, allowing RFS’ never-say-die attitude to pay off with a 120th minute equaliser and a subsequent penalty shootout triumph.
After lifting their first domestic title, RFS naturally featured in the Champions League this season too, but they were themselves upended in a penalty shootout against HJK Helsiniki, who featured Celtic loanee Conor Hazard in between the sticks.
The harsh winters of the Baltic states forces Latvian football into following a different footballing calendar from most of Western Europe, meaning RFS are already 25 games into their title defence. With nine games remaining, a second successive league victory looks unlikely as they trail capital rivals Riga and current table toppers Valmiera in third place, eight points off the pace.
Hearts may feel more confident in their own striking options after adding Lawrence Shankland to their attacking arsenal, but opposition dangermen are sure to occupy the minds of Robbie Neilson and his team heading into the Conference League fixtures.
RFS’ one to watch comes in the form of 22-year-old Andrej Ilić, whose 12 goals in the Latvian Higher League see him joint-top of the division’s scoring charts. The Serbia Under-21 International has impressed many since his arrival his home country’s SuperLiga last year, averaging a goal every two games for Viktor Morozs’ side.
The atmosphere might be wilder in Istanbul, the glamour might be glossier in Florence, but in terms of picking up points, Latvia may well be the most enticing trip for Jambos.
A lot will – and should – be made of the achievement of reaching this stage, but in truth, that was last season’s accolade. Now, in the new campaign, Hearts have the chance to fly the Scottish flag across uncharted waters in Conference League group stage football. Whether they sink or swim will determine if the voyages taken by train, boat, bus and plane become simple memories of freedom and fondness, or grand tales of phenomenal folklore.