Robbie Neilson spoke of a “massive learning curve” after Fiorentina ran amok at Tynecastle in the Conference League. But Hearts are not the only Scottish side finding the rarefied expanse of group-stage football a harsh and unforgiving environment.
The 3-0 Tynecastle loss completed a sobering set of results this week, after Rangers and Celtic were beaten in the Champions League at Liverpool and Leipzig respectively.
At the halfway stage, the stats make grim reading. Of the nine games played by Scottish sides, there has been only one win – Hearts’ 2-0 success at Rigas FS – and seven defeats.
Four goals have been scored, compared with 23 conceded. On home turf, it is even more galling: Four defeats out of four, 13 goals shipped and not a single one netted.
While not quite a case of be careful what you wish four – the millions rolling in from European qualification make defeats easer to stomach for clubs – the excitement is being tempered as reality bites.
“You look at teams historically when they get into Europe for the first time, it takes a few seasons before they start performing,” said Neilson, whose club have not played on this stage since 2004.
Was their approach wrong?
Should Hearts realistically have hoped to beat Fiorentina?
Neilson had talked up his side’s chances and pledged to “take the game” to the Italians, who are languishing in mid-table in Serie A and had won once in 10 games. Yet the Hearts boss opted for a defensive set-up that was ruthlessly punished.
Former Hearts defender Allan Preston told Sportsound: “I wonder what Robbie would change if he could have these 90 minutes again. They were never going to win that game. All they did was lose the ball and drop off – 3-0 flatters Hearts. “
Neilson denied his team showed Fiorentina too much respect.
“Do we press high and leave huge gaps behind us or do we sit and wait for the moment to come to steal the ball?” he asked. “There was a tactic behind it – we can’t just come out against a top side and go gung-ho, just pressing and pressing.”
Neilson said he was “proud” of his players’, but knows they have quickly learn from these chastening lessons, having lost 4-0 to Istanbul Basaksehir in their other home outing.
“The disappointing thing for me was the goals we conceded. For all Fiorentina were good, the goals we lost were poor,” he said.
Are Hearts equipped for Europe?
Hearts started against Fiorentina just one natural centre-half- 19-year-old Lewis Neilson – in a back three alongside Stephen Kingsley and Alex Cochrane.
Injuries have caused disruption to the center of defence, with Kye Rowles and Craig Halkett both sidelined, but are Hearts adequately equipped for the added toll of European football? There remains a sizeable void left by John Souttar’s summer departure to Rangers.
“Hearts don’t have a big enough squad to play Thursday, Sunday every week,” said Preston. “They’ve lost key players to injury, and there’s not enough quality there.”
Defender Neilson is a promising talent who had played just 10 times for Dundee United before his summer move to Tynecastle. His inexperience was laid bare with a tug on Luka Jovic’s shirt to earn a red card.
“A very inexperienced and young back three to play against a £60m striker who was at Real Madrid, so these guys will learn from that,” said manager Neilson.
“If you switch off for half a second against these players, you lose goals. I felt at times we were reactive instead of proactive. We have to be more proactive and have more belief.”
While not yet out of the running for the knockout rounds, two defeats in three leaves Hearts with a mountain to climb.
It resembles Everest when you factor in they’re away to Fiorentina and group leaders Basaksehir either side of a home game against Rigas FS.
“Next week’s game will be pivotal for us,” said Neilson. “It will be a hard game out there but hopefully we can get something and keep ourselves alive.”