Hearts claim huge Europa Conference League win over RFS

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GOALS at the end of each half from Lawrence Shankland and Alan Forrest helped Hearts kick off their Europa League Conference group campaign in Latvia against Riga FS.

He won’t be remembered as a classic European display on what was at times an uncomfortable evening at Skonto Stadium.

Gorgie’s side, however, won’t care as they made amends for the demoralizing 4-0 loss to Istanbul Basaksehir seven days earlier.

Three points for the Latvian captain was indeed a must – despite Hearts manager Robbie Neilson’s claims to the contrary – regarding their Group A aspirations.

It should have been a more comfortable evening before Forrest sealed the win, with Shankland guilty of missing a golden chance just before the break.

A two-goal winning margin was likely tough on the hosts, who played their part and looked particularly dangerous in the opening 45 minutes.

It wasn’t just three points on the line, Hearts also scooped £436,000 from UEFA’s pot money for their win.

The Tynecastle club, who will next face a double-header against Fiorentina, received an official allowance of around 900 but many more made the trip, with pockets of fans also scattered among the home sections.

On the pitch, Hearts’ personnel issues were at least showing signs of improvement.

Defender Craig Halkett and Jorge Grant were reinstated in the starting XI as Neilson made three changes to the side which were easily swept aside by Basaksehir.

It was Halkett’s first outing since being sent off just five minutes into the first leg of the Europa League play-off tie against FC Zurich with a hamstring injury.

After winning his fitness battle, the centre-half was visibly gutted when his evening ended prematurely after just 22 minutes.

He was uneasy after trying to fend off a dangerous run from Emerson.

The point Riga pulled from a memorable result in Italy against Fiorentina in their first group match demonstrated that defending champions Latvia would be no pushover.

And while Hearts’ desire to drive bodies forward and apply pressure at the top of the park was admirable, they were perhaps guilty of showing some tactical naivety in leaving themselves exposed in defense against a team that had rhythm to burn on the counter.

This was highlighted in the opening rallies when Hearts keeper Craig Gordon landed a superb hand to drive Emerson’s shot over the post.

It wasn’t just the Brazilian that Hearts had to worry about. In Andrej Ilic, Riga had a proven goalscorer.

The Croatian scored against Fiorentina for an impressive 19 goals in 33 games.

It was clear that the odds would also come at the other end. Josh Ginnelly registered the visitors’ first goal attempt after five minutes with a drive from range that was caught by the tense Pavels Steinbors.

Hearts continued to look uncomfortable for big spells, but they took control when Shankland hid a penalty in the 43rd minute.

Macedonian referee Aleksandar Stavrev pointed the spot after ruling that Elvis Stuglis’ hand was not in a natural position as he tried to cut off an Andy Halliday cross.

The breakthrough sparked a frantic end to the first half that could easily have seen the two teams trade goals.

Hearts keeper Craig Gordon was called in twice to make saves to prevent Tomislav Saric and Ziga Lipuscek.

At the other end, Shankland then inexplicably managed to shoot wide with the goal at his mercy.

Ginnelly put the ball on a plate with a square pass that neutralized the goalkeeper but Shankland stabbed his effort away from the open goal at the back post.

Whether a high-octane first half took its toll or whether it was the team halftime talk of the respective managers, what was clear after the interval was that both teams were more disciplined in terms of position in their approach.

Hearts tightened at the back, closed gaps and weren’t so careless going forward, although Ginnelly’s mostly deliveries down the right flank continued to pose questions for the Riga defense.

A 76th-minute breakaway allowed Shankland to fire from range but Steinbors fended off the effort.

Stephen Kingsley and Andy Halliday were also denied by the Riga keeper.

Riga boss Viktors Morozs’ frustration got the better of him and he received a second yellow card on the touchline.

His mood wouldn’t have been helped seeing substitute Forrest go home the second after Cammy Devlin led a counterattack.

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