Fiorentina 5-1 Hearts: Stephen Humphrys strikes but Jambos’ Europa Conference League hopes suffer a blow

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No one realistically expected a result in Italy after Fiorentina’s comfortable victory in Scotland last week. Hearts again lost an early goal and found themselves trailing 4-0 after a bruising first half. Striker Luka Jovic and captain Cristiano Biraghi put La Viola ahead 2-0 before striker Nico Gonzalez and midfielder Antonin Barak struck.

Humphrys cut the deficit with a composed strike early in the second half. Nevertheless, the revision of the four-goal deficit has always been unrealistic. Gonzalez’s late penalty restored it.

The result puts second-placed Fiorentina four points ahead of Hearts with two Group A games to play. Even a win over RFS at Tynecastle Park later this month would leave Robbie Neilson’s side needing a result in Turkey against leaders Istanbul Basaksehir on the final day to have any chance of finishing in the top two. Basaksehir beat RFS to stay on course to win the section.

Neilson has always stressed that this European campaign is a learning experience for his players and this encounter has turned into another difficult – but potentially useful – lesson. Hearts performed better in the second half after a tactical change to three centre-backs, but by then the tie was over.

Artemio Franchi was a former UEFA president who is credited with helping establish the former European Cup Winners’ Cup. He also founded the oil company Angelo Bruzzi in 1954. It was a perfectly smooth and well-oiled performance by Fiorentina inside the stadium named in his honor in what is a modernized version of the tournament he influenced.

Hearts had no response to the rhythm and exchanges between the Italians. They also lost another defender to injury in the form of Nathaniel Atkinson, although substitute Toby Sibbick was one of their best performers of the night.

After partying all afternoon in Florence’s Piazza di Santa Croce, Hearts fans had arrived at the stadium more hoping than expecting. They traveled by the thousands, prompting Fiorentina to cede some of the ground normally reserved for home fans. Last week’s 3-0 humiliation by the same opponents at Tynecastle Park revealed a massive chasm in class but also left plenty of room for improvement.

Hearts striker Stephen Humphrys celebrates after scoring against Fiorentina. Photo: Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

It was the glamorous game of the entire Conference League group stage for Hearts; a trip to a traditional Serie A heavyweight and the chance to rub shoulders with one of the biggest clubs in the tournament. The October sun, Peroni and Moretti at the rendezvous in a city full of culture, it was the trip that each Jambo prioritized during the Group A draw.

There was no trace of apprehension as they sang and danced to a pregame drum beat. Hearts were on a winning streak of just three in their last 12 games, but a faint degree of hope could be drawn from Fiorentina’s stats. They have won just two in 12 and failed to score in seven of their 14 matches this season.

Coach Vincenzo Italiano finds himself under pressure and has to do without Hearts to keep the critics at bay. His pulse reportedly quickened slightly when Stephen Humphrys hit a post in the opening seconds of the match after Sofyan Ambrabat carelessly offered possession to Barrie McKay in his own half.

Christian Kouamé’s free header from Biraghi’s left free kick – superbly repelled by Craig Gordon – presaged the future. With Atkinson temporarily off the pitch for treatment, Jovic headed Biraghi’s cross from a corner. For the second time in a week, Fiorentina were ahead against Hearts in the opening five minutes.

The Italians continued to find gaps in a visiting defense sorely missing the injured Craig Halkett and Michael Smith, not to mention the suspended Lewis Neilson. Rolando Mandragora fired a left-footed shot at the post in the 12th minute before Atkinson was sent off with his leg injury.

When Biraghi curled a perfect free kick 22 yards over the Hearts defensive wall and into Gordon’s top corner with that left foot ten minutes later, the game was already over as a contest. The roar of the people of Florence that followed was more of approval than excitement.

Hearts tried to use possession wisely when he had the ball. Jorge Grant and McKay teamed up to provide Humphrys with another run and shot that rolled just beyond the far post of Fiorentina keeper Pierluigi Gollini. They were creating but kept conceding on the other end.

The third goal came just after the half-hour mark when Antonin Barak and Kouamé fought their way through the opposing defense for Gonzalez to place a neat first time past Gordon at the far post. Then it was 4-0, Barak exchanging passes with Kouamé before a shot that went into the back of the net via Gordon’s arm and a post.

The Hearts supporters in the southeast curve of the field did not give in to their chant. They were rewarded two minutes into the second half when Andy Halliday’s ball found Humphrys. This time, the Englishman calmly stroked the ball past Gollini, prompting the loudest roar of the night from the away section.

Hearts had switched to a three-man central defense by half-time, with Peter Haring falling back alongside Stephen Kingsley and Alex Cochrane. They looked more comfortable, although Fiorentina secured the win. Local fans were also finding their voice.

After Cochrane fouled Fiorentina substitute Riccardo Saponara in the penalty area, Gonzalez converted from the spot to make it 5-1.

Fiorentina (4-3-3): Gollini; Terzic, Milenkovic, Igor, Biraghi (Venuti 79); Barak (Bianco 79), Amrabat, Mandragora (Duncan 46); Gonzalez, Jovic (Saponara 46), Kouame (Cabral 86).

Hearts (4-2-3-1): Gordon; Atkinson (Sibbick 16), Kingsley, Cochrane, Halliday; Haring, Devlin; Forrest (Kiomourtzoglou 46), Grant (C Smith 46), McKay (Henderson 75); Humphrys (Shankland 75).

Arbitrator: Ivan Bebek (Croatia).

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