Zurich v Heart of Midlothian: Visitors targeting first-leg victory

Hearts' unbeaten start to the domestic season contrasts with FC Zurich's early struggles
Hearts’ unbeaten start to the domestic season contrasts with FC Zurich’s early struggles
Venue: Kybunpark, St Gallen Date: Thursday, August 18 Kick-off: 18:00 BST
Coverage: Watch on BBC Scotland & iPlayer, listen on BBC Radio Scotland Extra/DAB/810MW, live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app

Manager Robbie Neilson wants to mark Hearts’ first European tie in six years with a lead over Swiss champions FC Zurich to take back to Tynecastle.

Thursday’s Europa League play-off first leg has been moved 80km to St Gallen’s stadium due to a concert being held at Zurich’s Letzigrund home.

After ending their 13-year title wait last season, Zurich are bottom five games into the new Swiss season.

“It’s a great occasion and one we’re confident for,” said Neilson.

“It helps us a wee bit coming here. I don’t expect the crowd to be as big as it would be in Zurich. We’ll bring a couple of thousand over as well which will help us.

“Although it’s not Zurich’s home it’s still a difficult place, but we want to try to win it.”

Zurich have already lost in St Gallen this season – 2-0 to the home side in the Swiss Super League last month.

Hearts sit third in the Scottish Premiership after an undefeated start, beating Ross County and Dundee United at home and drawing away to city rivals Hibernian.

Zurich, under new manager Franco Foda, knocked out Northern Irish champions Linfield 5-0 on aggregate in the previous round. However, that came after losing their Champions League qualifier 5-4 to Qarabag of Azerbaijan.

Hearts hosts Zurich in the second leg next Thursday and the winner of the tie progresses to the group stage, with the loser dropping into the Europa Conference League groups.

Team news

Zurich centre-backs Lindrit Kamberi and Marc Hornschuh are both suspended. Kosovar winger Donis Avdijaj, who played three times for Hearts in 2020 before the pandemic struck, is expected to miss out through injury.

Hearts defenders Craig Halkett and Alex Cochrane have both recovered from knocks sustained in the 4-1 weekend win over Dundee United. That leaves midfielder Beni Baningime, a long-term injury casualty, as the visitors’ only absentee.

What they said

Zurich Franco Foda: “Hearts often play with long balls, but they also have individual quality, for example with attacking player Liam Boyce or the wingers.

“They are a versatile team, who often change the system in the game. We need a high level of intensity and aggression off the ball.”

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson: “I expect Zurich to be a very good team. They’ve had a difficult start to the season but are Swiss champions.

“They have a lot of pace up front, good technical players in midfield, so we’ll need to be really well organized to get a result here.”

What do we know about Zurich?

Zurich won their domestic title by 16 points from Basel in their single season under Andre Breitenreiter.

But the German opted to return to the Bundesliga with Hoffenheim and was replaced with compatriot Foda, who had resigned as Austria boss in March after their failure to qualify for the World Cup finals.

Striker Assan Ceesay, who provided 22 goals and 11 assists last season, also decided to reject a new deal in preference for a move to Lecce in Serie A.

In has come Ivan Santini – the 33-year-old Croat has already scored twice in Europe this season – as well as ex-Hearts winger Avdijaj.

Striker Wilfried Gnonto recently became Italy’s youngest-ever scorer at the age of 18 and, like 20-year-old Swiss defender Becir Omeragic, has already accumulated four international caps.

Match stats

  • Zurich won the Swiss title for the 13th time last season and dropped down to the Europa League after losing to Qarabag in the Champions League qualifiers, while Hearts qualified by finishing third in the Scottish Premiership.
  • Hearts have faced Swiss opposition twice before – losing to both Lausanne-Sport in the 1963-64 Fairs Cup and Basel in their only appearance in a European group stage, the 2004-05 Uefa Cup.
  • Zurich have faced Scottish opposition five times, losing to Celtic, Dundee and Kilmarnock before beating Rangers and Celtic.
  • This is the first time Zurich have faced Scottish opposition since beating Celtic 5-3 on aggregate in the Uefa Cup second round in 1998-99.
  • This is Hearts’ first appearance in European competition since losing to Maltese side Birkirkara in Europa League qualifying in 2016.
  • Zurich have reached the Europa League group stage four times, and the Champions League and Uefa Cup groups once each, reaching the last 32 in their last appearance in 2018-19.
  • The furthest Hearts have progressed in European competition is the Uefa Cup quarter-finals in 1988-99, when they lost to Bayern Munich.
  • Zurich twice reached the European Cup semi-finals – losing to Real Madrid in 1963-64 and Liverpool in 1976-77.

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