Hearts were defeated 2-1 by FC Zurich in the first leg of their Europa League play-off clash last night but manager Robbie Neilson admitted he was satisfied that his team remained in contention in the tie.
The Gorgie side went ahead against the Swiss champions through a Lawrence Shankland penalty but two goals in two minutes before the break from Adrian Guerrero and Blerim Dzemaili turned the clash in Zurich’s favour.
Hearts rode their luck at times in the second half as Franco Foda’s side looked to add to their winning margin but manager Neilson was pleased with what he saw in St Gallen.
“I was delighted with the performance of the players, I thought they were absolutely outstanding tonight,” said Neilson, whose side will be roared on by a sold out Tynecastle crowd for the second leg next Thursday.
“We’ve come here against the Swiss champions, top team, international players, and we’ve performed very well.
“We’ve got the goal, playing exceptionally well and then two sloppy goals in quick succession but we then steadied the ship and got through the game.
“The game now goes back to Tynecastle and the main objective coming here is that when we go back to Tynecastle to make sure we give ourselves a chance and we’ve done that.
“We’ll give it everything at Tynecastle and try to get through.
“I’m pretty sure it will be raucous, that’s for sure. The fans today were outstanding.
“We’ll have another 18,000 of them next Thursday and I think it will be a brilliant night.”
A guaranteed £3 million windfall for reaching the Europa League group stages will be at stake next Thursday.
The consolation prize will be progress to the Europa Conference League group staged should they come up short.
Zurich have not had their problems to seek at home this season after picking up only two points from five in their bid to retain their title but Foda’s side were tidy on the ball and dangerous going forward.
Despite a vocal and animated phalanx of Zurich fans making their presence felt behind one of the goals, it was by no means a hostile environment for the visitors.
Zurich can usually rely on in excess of 10,000 fans at their home games but with the first leg taking place in St Gallen 55 miles to the west of Switzerland’s largest city due to their own ground being double-booked with a music concert, a crowd of 5,347 watched on.
That figure included around 1,000 supporters who made the trip from Edinburgh.
On a pitch that had been greased by torrential rain both before and during the match, underfoot conditions were tricky for both sets of players.
That was probably a factor in a scrappy opening to the game.
Hearts then made their mark when they went ahead in the 22nd minute from the penalty spot.
They worked the ball wide to Nathaniel Aktinson and the Australian was stamped on by Ole Selnaes in a clumsy challenge inside the box.
After an initial delay, Polish referee Bartosz Frankowski pointed to the spot, triggering vehement protests from the Zurich players.
Shankland kept his cool from 12 yards, driving a low effort into the bottom left hand corner of the net despite Yanick Brecher guessing the right way.
Perhaps still furious with the award of the penalty, Zurich's response was emphatic as they scored two goals within two minutes.
The manner of the strikes was particularly galling for Neilson. Atkinson was at fault for the equaliser in the 32nd minute.
The defender got his bearings all wrong as he got caught under goalkeeper’s Yanick Brecher’s long ball out. He ended up looping a header towards his own goal and Guerrero, who was lurking behind him, swivelled and lashed a left-footed volley past Gordon from close range.
Hearts were spooked and conceded again soon after. Peter Haring’s attempt to intercept Guerrero’s low cross teed up Dzemaili and the veteran former Swiss international fired a rising shot into the net from 12 yards.
Michael Smith came for Atkinson at the break and was forced to defend as Zurich created a handful of chances immediately at the start of the second half.
Former Hearts winger Donis Avdijaj had a shot deflected wide by Kye Rowles before Selnaes headed the corner over.
Avdijaj was involved again when he met a deep cross at the back post but the Austrian headed wide.
Another chance came and went for Zurich in the 67th minute. Guerrero should really have scored after being picked out by Avdijaj at the back post but the left wing back was unable to repeat his first half exploits and this time volleyed wide.
Hearts brought on Liam Boyce and Alan Forrest for the closing stages and the latter shot wide when his team-mates were calling out for a cross.
Gordon then came to Hearts’ rescue in the 90th minute when he kept out Fabian Rohner.