Hearts crashed out of the Europa League play-offs but restored their battered pride with a storming performance in a 2-0 win at a rainy Tynecastle. Roared on by a passionate, near-capacity crowd (in the stands allocated to the home fans) in Tynecastle for the first time in continental competition in nearly six years, captain Michael Stewart sparked dreams of overturning the 4-0 first-leg deficit with his 16th-minute opener. The midfielder then was unlucky to see his shot deflected onto the crossbar as Csaba Laszlo's outfit made a mockery of Dinamo Zagreb's dominant display last week. When defender Marius Zaliukas hooked in the second shortly after the break, belief they were capable of a sensational result coursed through the home ranks. However, the tie, and the club's chances of reaching the lucrative group stages of the Europa League, was ultimately lost in the horribly below-par performance in Croatia. The game survived a scare when a fire caused by one of the back-up electricity generators blew one set of floodlights at the Gorgie Road end of the ground. However, German referee Knut Kircher ruled the tie could go ahead minus one set of lights.
Having been told he cannot sign the striker he so desperately wants, Laszlo gave Christian Nade and Gary Glen the opportunity to impress, but it was the return from suspension of Zaliukas and Stewart from Sunday's 2-1 defeat to Rangers that brought the goals. Hearts sought the explosive start they needed right from kick-off and following three long throws from Jose Goncalves down the left David Obua's mis-kicked his shot when well placed. Zagreb should have taken the lead on the night moments later, only for Greece internationalist Dimitrios Papadopoulos to whistle his shot inches wide from the right side of the box. A wonderful piece of skill by Hearts winger Suso Santana along the by-line in the 11th minute failed to bring its rewards, despite goalkeeper Tomislav Butina's nervous fumble of the Spaniard's cross as Hearts continued to press. Six minutes later, Glen got a clear sight of goal from Obua's driven pass but the youngster's first touch let him down and he could not get a clean shot away. However, Stweart ignited the match by getting the early goal Hearts craved. The Scotland international robbed Milan Badelj 40 yards from goal and burst past Ivica Vrdoljak before slotting past Butina. The Croatian champions attempted to cancel out Hearts' advantage immediately but Janos Balogh was equal to Marijo Mandzukic's shot from Papadopoulos' cutback. Stewart almost got a dream second in the 28th minute as the woodwork denied Hearts. Craig Thomson's deep cross was knocked back in by Obua and into the path of Stewart by Glen but the skipper's hooked volley took a slight deflection before rebounding back off the crossbar.
Hearts were temporarily down to 10 men at the start of the second period after Zaliukas took a kick to his face and suffered a cut mouth. However, the Lithuanian was able to continue and hauled the capital side even closer to a dramatic comeback in the 55th minute. Thomson's corner was only half-cleared to the edge of the box and Zaliukas hooked the ball back through a crowded goalmouth and past Butina. Immediately, Papadopoulos should have taken the wind out of Hearts but shot over from the edge of the box and Badelj's powerful drive went the same way. Hearts had claims for a penalty waved away in the 68th minute when Santana went down in the box, and then went close to setting up a grandstand finish with 12 minutes remaining. However, Butina scrambled Ismael Bouzid's header from Thomson's free-kick away from his near post. Balogh beat a shot from Papadopoulos away as play raged from end to end before Obua wasted Hearts' last real chance to set up a late rally when he hooked his shot over the bar with seven minutes left. It was a magnificent performance which was night and day from that in Zagreb and one which went some way to restoring the reputation of Scottish football in European competition.
Hearts manager Csaba Laszlo again raised question marks over his future at the club in the wake of his side's Europa League exit against Dinamo Zagreb. He said: "All this together was a good experience for us, and I hope with all my heart that - with me or without me - this team can qualify for (next season's) Europa League and these young guys can enjoy European football. I think this is a great club and it is the club which in the long term, if it performs in this direction and keeps the players together, has a nice future. Will I be here next season? I don't know. I don't know what will happen tomorrow and after tomorrow. I have a two-year contract and I would definitely like to stay here - but I would definitely like to have support from the club. I would like to see this protection come not only in the good times but also in the bad times. I put my face always in the front and I fight for the club, for the board and for everybody. But sometimes I can also be tired, and if somebody is tired sometimes they must sit down and take a chair. The important thing is I don't like to leave this team. I promised to myself and to the dressing room. It is not a big secret that there is interest in Hannover. They are a big club; Hearts is also a big club. I have not spoken with anyone at Hannover, personally. If they would like to have my services they must talk to the club, before they talk with me." Laszlo, proud of his team's performance, insisted he could yet see himself staying at the club in the long term - if he is allowed to take the team forward. He added: "What we achieved last season was not an accident, and this season I hope we can bring some scouts to the stadium and also make some money and keep the important players here - and also bring some new blood here. f you have success people talk about you. I like Edinburgh - this country and this people; they have given me good things, and this owner gave me the possibility to work at this club. I can imagine staying here for 10 years if I see we have progress, and this progress never stops. We can have a hard time, but I would like to see progress. I would like to see support from behind. For me it's not a question of leaving, I would like to have the support."
Ger Harley (ger@scottishfitba net)
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