Hearts’ return to the European scene after a six-year absence ended with a loss to FC Zurich in Switzerland, but manager Robbie Neilson called his team’s performance “outstanding”.
The Tynecastle club led through Lawrence Shankland’s penalty, only going by two moments of slack defending inside two minutes of the first half to prove costly in a 2-1 loss.
Still, the tie remains fine and Neilson insists his side have a “great chance” of reaching the Europa League group stage.
“I thought we were outstanding,” he told BBC Scotland. “We have come to the Swiss champions, who had a magnificent season last season with international players.
“We took the lead and then lost two sloppy goals, but we stayed in the game and gave ourselves a great chance in front of 20,000 rowdy Hearts fans next week.”
The Tynecastle crowd will play their part next Thursday, but Hearts need to improve their performance after conceding two poor goals in quick succession, and they may have to do so without influential centre-back Craig Halkett.
Livingston’s ex-man limped off after six minutes and walked out of the tunnel on crutches. Neilson later confirmed that he strained his hamstring, suggesting that he will have trouble making the second leg.
In his absence, Nathaniel Atkinson was exposed for the first goal, which came from a direct clearance, and Halkett’s presence in the box was lost for the second when Hearts twice failed to clear.
Zürich also had other good chances, taking 12 shots from inside the area, while Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon made an excellent save in the last minute to keep the score 2-1.
But perhaps more worrying was the fact that Hearts struggled to create against a side that had kept three clean sheets in 10 games this season, two of which came against a much weaker Linfield side.
From open play Hearts recorded less than an expected goal (xG) and although they looked more threatening with Michael Smith playing balls to fellow substitutes Liam Boyce and Alan Forrest, they rarely tested the Zurich goalkeeper.
All things considered, a one-goal deficit is a good result for Hearts to take back to Edinburgh.
Will Tynecastle prove pivotal?
Neilson is clearly convinced that his side have what it takes to improve and advance to the group stage alongside Manchester United and Arsenal.
Confidence comes from their players, but also from the advantage of playing at home. Tynecastle will be packed, tight and raucous under the lights for a first European draw in six years.
“Two years ago, we were playing Queen of the South on a Friday night at the Championship,” added Neilson.
“We are here against the Swiss champions, we lost 2-1 but we had a brilliant performance.
“We’re going back to Tynecastle next Thursday, the place will be great and we’ve given ourselves a good opportunity.”
‘I’m sure Hearts can progress’ – analysis
Former Hearts midfielder Michael Stewart on Sportscene
Looking at the second leg, I’m sure Hearts can progress. If you can get those forward four of Boyce, Shankland, Forrest and Barrie McKay early on, Hearts is a dangerous side. I haven’t seen anything in Zurich that scares me.
Former Hearts manager Craig Levein on Sportsound
If Hearts had gone for Zurich at 1-0… they’re not in good shape and they’re vulnerable. I feel like there was a missed opportunity there. Tynecastle will shine next week but they will have to play with more confidence.