Thursday 30 June 2016, Tynecastle Park
A very early start to competitive fixtures for us with the first leg of the first Qualifying Round of the Europa League. Heart of Midlothian facing FC Infonet Tallinn of Estonia.
Hearts have been busy over the summer, with six players leaving. Alexander, Pallardo and Augustyn as well as Under 20s players Howlett-Mundle, McKirdy and Henderson have all parted company. Striker Reilly has also gone to Dunfermline Athletic on loan. Coming in are Robbie Muirhead from Dundee United, former Kilmarnock striker Conor Sammon, Belgian-born Moroccan left back Faycal Rherras from Sint-Truiden, former Partick Thistle goalkeeper Paul Gallacher, who is also goalkeeping coach, young Bulgarian striker Nikolay Todorov after his contract expired at Nottingham Forest and eight new players for the Under 20 team.
Salmon and Rherras go straight into the starting eleven while Gallacher and Todorov are on the bench. Perry Kitchen is also on the bench after just returning from playing for the USA in the Copa America.
Infonet Tallinn were founded in 2002 before merging with two other sides in 2011. They finished in second place in the 2011 season, but were beaten in the promotion play-offs. They won the league the following year and finished their first season in the Estonian top division in 6th place. On 13 July 2015, Infonet beat amateur side Virtsu 36–0 in a cup match, equaling Arbroath’s 130 year old record for the biggest victory. Infonet head into the game having narrowly missed out on winning Estonia’s premier club division the Meistriliiga last season, with them ending up just one point behind rivals Levadia. This is the team’s first foray into European competition.
A last minute decision to go to this one, and reduced ticket prices probably had several people making last minute choices. With the first quarter final of Euro 2016 being live on TV, I was interested to see what kind of crowd there would be.
Infonet currently sit second in the league and are in middle of their season. Many years of seeing Hearts in pre-season friendlies suggest this is going to be far from easy for the Scottish side.
A pretty good crowd considering (14,417) but the lack of turnstiles open for entrance to the main stand where I was to sit suggests it was a few more than expected. Special mention to the two Infonet fans travelled to Edinburgh and sat in the top row of the away end.
It was clear very quickly that the Estonians were good on the ball and had a few decent players. Hearts looked well off the pace. Infonet seemed content to sit back and soak up any pressure that Hearts could cause, and hit on the break. The gameplan looked to be working with Harin and Voskoboinikov causing particular problems with their skill and hold up play.
Infonet had flight issues on their way to Edinburgh, non-EU players had visa problems and training kit went missing in transit. It looked more like the other way round.
Hearts were guilty of several wayward passes and looked shaky at the back. Infonet looked quicker all over the pitch. Harin and Voskoboinikov both had chances before the team from Tallinn opened the scoring in 20 minutes and what a goal it was. Kruglov found some space on the left and whipped in a delightful curling ball into the box that was met with an acrobatic volley from Harin and it flew into the top corner past a startled Hamilton. It will be hard to top that goal at Tynecastle for the rest of the season.
The goal seemed to invigorate Hearts and seven minutes later, they were level. Sammon linked with Juanma on the edge of the penalty area and the Spaniard’s ball forwrad hit Avilov on the hand and the referee pointed to the spot. Buaben’s confidently tucked the penalty away.
In 36 minutes, the Jambos took the lead. A spell of pressure ended with a Walker corner towards the back post, Paterson turned the ball back across goal when he probably should have scored, where Kalimullin awkwardly turned it into his own net.
Anyone who thought Hearts would settle after taking the lead was in for a shock as Hamilton produced a great save to push Kruglov’s swerving drive for a corner, and Paterson and Nicholson were seen arguing furiously with each other before the break. Hamilton held another header from Voskoboinikov before the whistle blew.
Sammon had a go from distance which was comfortable for keeper Igonen before . Volodin’s vicious strike was parried by Hamilton at the other end.
As players tired, the game became more open, but either side could have got the important next goal. Kruglov tried a long range effort with four minutes left and Voskoboinikov had another shot a minute later, but there were to be no more goals on a night when both sides could have scored a few more.
Hearts never looked in command of the game and the Estonians were always a threat. Some of the home support booed at the end, but Hearts would have been pleased to win the game on the balance of play.
Hearts will need to be a lot sharper for the second leg, which is a possibility at this stage of the season.
Full Time: Hearts 2 Infonet Tallinn 1
Hearts: 1 Hamilton 2 Paterson, 5 Ozturk, 14 Souttar, 3 Rherras, 11Nicholson, 8 Buaben (Kitchen 78), 10 Djoum, 7 Walker, 9 Juanma (King 64), 18 Sammon. Subs: 51 Gallacher, 4 Rossi, 6 Kitchen, 24 L Smith, 25 Todorov, 26 Zanatta.
Infonet: 1 Igonen, 7 Volodin, 5 Appiah, 2 Kalimullen, 4 Avilov, 23 Kruglov, 33 Masitsev (Haminu 60), 27 Dmitrijev, 10 Mosnikov, 9 Harin (Kulinits 83); 8 Voskoboinikov. Subs: 25 Zelentsov, 6 Haminu, 12 Kulinits, 14 Vnukov, 15 Golovljov, 20 Domov, 22 Rattel.
Referee: Vilhjalmur Alvar (Iceland).