Thursday 21 July 2016, 20.00, Tynecastle Park
The second leg of the Second qualifying round of the Europa League between Heart of Midlothian and Maltese side Birkirkara.
After seeing Hearts struggle to a 2-1 win at Tynecastle in the first leg against FC Infonet Tallinn in the previous round, it was a bit of a surprise that they won convincingly in the return leg to go through 6-3 on aggregate. A 0-0 draw in Malta in the first leg, in which Hearts dominated for lengthy periods must have made them confident of progressing.
Hearts have just signed Tony Watt on loan from Charlton Athletic. The striker is most well-known for his goal against Barcelona when playing for Celtic in the Champions League. His signing came too late to feature against Birkirkara.
Perry Kitchen is injured for the Jambos and Sam Nicholson comes in to the starting line up.
You can trace football in Birkirkara as far back as 1916, although the current club was formed in 1950 after the amalgamation between Birkirkara United and Birkirkara Celtic.
For most of their early years, they went between the top two divisions. Usually finding themselves too good for the second division, but not good enough for the first. After consolidating their place in the top division in the 70s, the 80s saw them back in the yo-yo trend. The 1990s saw them join with Luxol St. Andrews and a name change to Birkirkara Luxol. The amalgamation lasted only two years.
In season 1996-97 they were runners-up in the league and qualified for the UEFA cup for the very first time. They won the top league for the first time in 1999-00, when celebrating their 50th anniversary and have repeated the feat three more times, most recently in 2012-13.
Last season they ended up empty handed, but had secured a place in European Competitions for the twentieth consecutive time. They went out on penalties to West Ham United in the second round of the Europa League.
A new record could be achieved by qualifying for the 3rd round of Europa League if they got through against Hearts. The players celebrated the 0-0 draw at the end of the first leg. Croatian Coach Drazen Besek was confident of victory.
Herrera started for Birkirkara, swapping places with Guillaumier from the first leg, who took a seat on the bench.
There was 14,301 in attendance, which included around 50 fans of Birkirkara.
Birkirkara almost took the lead in the second minute, a corner from Dimitrov finding its way to Bajada in the middle of the box, all alone, but Hamilton managed to save.
A Nicholson free kick for Hearts in 6 minutes was punched clear by Kopric.
Hearts were starting to dominate, but were not really creating any chances and the away side were dealing comfortably with balls into the box.
Paterson did get his head to a Rherras cross in 21 minutes., but didn’t have enough power to trouble the keeper.
Walker and Nicholson were looking dangerous and the latter had a great run in 24 minutes when he glided past three challenges before laying the ball off to Djoum, but he was quickly crowded out by the blanket defence.
In 26 minutes, Paterson won the ball for Hearts on half way and sent a great ball to the back post where Walker acrobatically volleyed towards goal but with the keeper beaten, it cannoned back off the bar.
Attard was testing the patience of the referee. Having been booked in 31 minutes for a foul on Walker, he took down Nicholson in 34 minutes. This time though, it was inside the box and Hearts had a penalty. Buaben stepped up to take it, but Kopric guessed the right way and was able to save the weak penalty.
Hearts continued to press and Rehrras came forward in 40 minutes and cut inside then sent a curling effort towards the far post, but it didn’t curl enough and went past.
Kopric came out of his goal just on half time and was robbed by Walker near the corner flag. As Kopric tried to race back, Walker sent the ball towards goal from a tight angle, but Marcellina was back to clear off the line.
Hearts continued to press at the start of the second half, but they had a shock in 54 minutes.
A free-kick by Dimitrov failed to be cleared by the defence, as it ricocheted around the box, it fell into the path of Bubalovic who hit a firm drive through a sea of bodies and past goalkeeper Hamilton. A vital away goal for the side from Malta. Hearts needed two goals now to go through.
This seemed to be too much for the more fickle of the Jambo faithful, with some walking out, shouting at fellow fans and two even throwing their scarves onto the pitch.
Hearts almost scored straight from kick off. The ball was played wide to Nicholson who again beat defenders with ease before cutting inside and firing a thunderbolt which came off the underside of the bar. You got the feeling it wasn’t to be Hearts night.
A minute later, another great chance for the home side, with substitute Juanma prodding goalwards from close range. Kopric pushed the ball out, but only as far as Djoum, who rifled over the bar with the goal gaping.
Hearts were piling forward, but Birkirkara were sitting very deep and looked dangerous on the break.
Those fears were realised for the Scottish side in 65 minutes when Birkirkara broke quickly upfield. Dimitrov dribbled forward and played it forward to Plut who played a great ball for Herrera to run onto, completely out with the defender’s reach and he fired home through Hamilton’s legs to make it two.
Hearts got a lifeline in 73 minutes when a first time cross into the box by Djoum was met by the head of Sammon, who steered it into the net for his first Hearts goal.
The home side immediately threw on another forward, and a shot wide by Djoum and a late free kick by Ozturk that was too high were all they could muster. They were pretty much camped in Birkirkara’s half but couldn’t get the breakthrough.
The full time whistle was greeted with great joy by the players and fans of the away team. Many of those left in the home end expressed their displeasure.
Although Hearts fans could rightly have expected to win, they hit the bar twice and missed a penalty and dominated the match. A bit of naivety when a goal down and some poor passing, including a final ball, coupled with some wayward finishing meant they exited the competition. A third place finish last season in their first season back in the top league after winning the Championship easily the year before, which featured Rangers and Hibs, makes you wonder what the fans actually expect from the team. Just two years ago, Hearts were very close to going out of business altogether. They’ve come a very long way since then.
Full Time: Hearts 1 Birkirkara 2 (Aggregate 1-2)
Hearts: 1 Jack Hamilton, 24 Liam Smith (Juanma 57), 3 Faycal Rherras, 4 Igor Rossi Branco (Muirhead 74), 5 Alim Ozturk, 2 Callum Paterson, 7 Jamie Walker, 8 Prince Buaben (Cowie 81), 10 Arnaud Djoum, 11 Sam Nicholson, 18 Conor Sammon. Subs: 13 Viktor Noring, 9 Juanma Delgado, 14 John Souttar, 15 Don Cowie, 23 Robbie Muirhead, 26 Dario Zanatta, 28 Marcus Godhino.
Birkirkara: 1 Miroslav Kopric, 2 Edward Herrera, 3 Christian Bubalovic, 4 Gareth Sciberras, 5 Emerson Marcellina, 10 Dimitrov Srdan (Guillaumier 73), 14 Vito Plut, 18 Pierre Shaun Bajada (Jovic 67), 19 Joseph Zerafa, 21 Ryan Scicluna (Camenzuli 90), 22 Cain Attard. Subs: 12 Etim Ini Akpan, 7 Ryan Camenzuli, 11 Dejan Djordjevic, 13 Matteo Desira Buttigieg, 23 Predrag Jovic, 25 Bruno Marrotti, 28 Matthew Guillaumier.
Referee: Ville Nevalainen (FIN)