Hearts 0-1 FC Zurich (agg 1-3): Europa Conference League wave as Jambos lose to Swiss champions

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The hosts squandered several decent scoring chances in the first half before the game turned with Jorge Grant’s red card early in the second half. Leading 2-1 from the first leg in St. Gallen, Zurich waited patiently for a chance and substitute Fabian Rohner earned them a 3-1 aggregate advantage with ten minutes remaining.

Hearts captain Craig Gordon was hit by a missile from the away side during the second half in an incident that is sure to be reported by UEFA delegate Robert Agnarsson. The evening ended unpleasantly for the hosts, who will at least be grateful for the safety net of automatic passage to the Conference League group stage.

They may well regret some negligence in the first half and wonder what might have happened if they had managed to force the opening goal of this Europa League play-off second leg. In the end, Grant’s dismissal for a second simulation warning inside Zurich’s penalty area was the moment that changed the complexion of the 90 minutes.

Hearts had been dominant from kick-off and were pushing towards a goal when they were reduced to ten men. Zürich soon began to control possession with more fluidity and Rohner was clinical when the chance to strike came late.

A place in the Conference League could offer a somewhat easier introduction to European group stage football for a Tynecastle side who are very inexperienced in continental competition. But make no mistake, the Europa League was the tournament they wanted the most.

The tension was high all night in Georgia given the stakes for both teams. Several hundred Swiss supporters gathered at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket in the afternoon and were quick to make their presence known. Some unsavory scenes then ensued involving the police on McLeod Street outside Tynecastle before kick-off.

Zurich supporters may not be too enamored with coach Franco Foda, but, singing and drumming outside the Roseburn Stand, they didn’t deny backing his accusations.

Referee Lawrence Visser shows Hearts midfielder Jorge Grant a red card against FC Zurich.

The absence of midfielder Blerim Dzemaili through injury deprived their side of one of their main attacking weapons. His goal in the first leg secured the 2-1 advantage that Zürich were so desperate to save in this second leg.

Tynecastle’s new main stand hosted its first-ever UEFA match and one that promised drama from minute to minute. The decibel level reached piercing levels as the teams emerged and from the kick-off, Hearts displayed intention to overtake.

They managed to move the ball through Zurich’s midfield and defense with Grant, Barrie McKay, Liam Boyce and Alan Forrest all heavily involved in the attacking third. Forrest’s left-footed attempt was blocked by Swiss goalkeeper Yanick Brecher in the 14th minute.

He recovered again after Kye Rowles met Jorge Grant’s corner in the 25th minute. Hearts’ dominance at this point required a killer end product and the reward of a goal with Zürich forced to retreat deep into their own territory for long stretches. Mirlind Kryeziu’s desperate sliding challenge denied Forrest from a tight angle.

When the opposing team ventured forward, they were frequently stopped by the ubiquitous Cammy Devlin, who patrolled central midfield with authority and tenacity in equal measure.

His slippery interception moments at halftime were the catalyst for Hearts’ best opener in the first half. The Aussie hit a forehand clearance to Forrest, whose cross found Boyce, but his descending header from six yards was off target. The home technical area coaching staff held their heads in their hands in disbelief.

Forrest enjoyed tormenting Zurich left-back Adrian Guerrero, with equally influential McKay on the opposite side. Italy’s teenage international Wilfried Gnonto was introduced for the second half along with midfielder Marc Hornschuh as Foda looked to give his side more attacking momentum.

Flares illuminated the opposing team but the burning question was who would take the initiative in this second leg. After Brecher held off McKay’s drive shot, that question was answered in the 54th minute as Grant was shown a red card.

The England midfielder hit Guerrero and then fell to a challenge from Karol Mets inside the penalty area. Belgian referee Lawrence Visser has issued a second warning after booking the player for a late first-half challenge. Grant kicked a digital billboard in disgust as he left the field. Most of the crowd shared the sentiment.

Hearts now faced adversity with ten men battling to overturn a 2-1 deficit. Gnonto pricked Gordon’s palms for the first time in the game in the 66th minute. A needless and senseless moment of controversy then ensued when the goalkeeper was hit in the back of the head by a missile from the opposing end as he was about to take a free kick.

Despite the numerical advantage, Zurich were still a little cautious, but when the opportunity to score presented itself, they were ruthless. Substitute Aiyegun Tosin hit a low shot outside Gordon’s right post before fellow substitute Rohner delivered the decisive shot.

He arrived to powerfully strike Gnonto’s cut past Gordon from close range with ten minutes to go. With that, the tie was over. Friday’s Europa Conference League draw in Istanbul is at 1.30pm UK time, and everyone connected to Hearts must now refocus their energies on this tournament.

Hearts (4-2-3-1):Gordon; M Smith, Kingsley (Sibbick 78), Rowles, Cochrane; Devlin (C Smith 84), grant; Forrest (Ginnelly 63), Boyce (Haring 63), McKay; Shankland.

FC Zurich (3-5-2): Brecher; Omeragic, Kryeziu, Mets; Boranijasevic, Conde (Hornschuh 46), Selnaes, Marchesano (Rohner 79), Guerrero (Aliti 90); V’Yunnik (Tosin 63), Avdijaj (Gnonto 46).

Arbitrator: Lawrence Visser (Belgium).

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