Robbie Neilson pleased with Hearts' Europa League draw as he targets group stages

Robbie Neilson pleased with Hearts' Europa League draw as he targets group stages
Robbie Neilson pleased with Hearts' Europa League draw as he targets group stages

Robbie Neilson is hopeful of tasting more success in Switzerland after Hearts were handed a ‘good draw’ against FC Zurich or Linfield in their Europa League play-off.

The Swiss champions, who were knocked out of the Champions League second qualifying round by Qarabag after extra-time last week, will be fully expected to see off Linfield, who lost 8-1 to Bodø/Glimt at the same stage of the premier tournament.

Zurich have not made a good start to the new league season under new boss Franco Foda, the former Austria manager, failing to win any of their three Super League outings to leave them bottom of the table on just one point from a possible nine.

And one look at the other teams the Jambos could have faced will give Neilson and his squad further heart for the two-legged tie.

Hearts are likely to be at home in the first-leg on August 18 and away a week later, but could have drawn Malmö of Sweden, Greeks Olympiacos, Maribor of Sweden or Turks Fenerbahçe, as well as Neil Lennon’s Omonia Nicosia.

With league games against Hibernian and Dundee United before then, Neilson said: “It’s a good draw for us.

“First and foremost, we have a derby coming up. It’s great that we have this European tie to look forward to, but we’ve got to take care of the derby first.

“It’s obviously a tight turnaround to prepare for this game, and that’s probably going to be the case right through until the World Cup, to be honest with you.

“Hence why we prepared during pre-season the way we did – Wednesdays and Saturdays and so on.  The boys are ready and looking forward to it.”

Hearts know they will drop into the Europa Conference League group stage if they lose their Europa League play-off.

However, Neilson is setting his sights on progress in the continent’s second-rung tournament to mirror their last meeting with Swiss opponents.

Neilson was the dramatic late match-winner when Hearts defeated Basel 2-1 in the UEFA Cup group stage in 2004, although that was their only success as they finished bottom in a league that also included Feyenoord, Schalke and Ferencvaros.

Neilson added: “It was a long time ago, that! Hopefully there can be more of the same – it would be fantastic if there was.

“This is where we want the club to be. We want to try and get Hearts into the Europa League.

“Against a lot of these teams, we’d fancy ourselves to go out and win the game. It’ll be brilliant for the club.”

Zurich have a familiar face in their ranks, with former Hearts winger Donis Avdijaj - who made three appearances in 2020 - penning a three-year contract on Monday.

They do have a good record against Scottish teams in European competition, having knocked out Celtic in the second round of the UEFA Cup with a 5-3 win in 1998-99 and dumped Rangers out of the first round of the European Cup with a 2-1 victory in 1976-77.

Further back, though, Kilmarnock, Dundee and Celtic all defeated the Swiss in the 1960s.