Hearts’ return to the European stage after a six-year absence ended in defeat by FC Zurich in Switzerland, but manager Robbie Neilson labelled his side’s performance “outstanding”.
The Tynecastle club led through Lawrence Shankland’s penalty, only for two moments of slack defending within two first-half minutes to prove costly in a 2-1 loss.
Still, the tie remains finely poised and Neilson insists his team have a “massive opportunity” to reach the group stage of the Europa League.
“I thought we were outstanding,” he told BBC Scotland. “We’ve come to the Swiss champions, who had a magnificent season last season with international players.
“We’ve taken the lead and then lost two sloppy goals but we stayed in the game and we’ve given ourselves a massive opportunity in front of 20,000 loud, noisy Hearts fans next week.”
The Tynecastle crowd will play its part next Thursday, but Hearts need to turn in an improved performance after conceding two poor goals in quick succession, and they might have to do it without influential centre-back Craig Halkett.
The former Livingston man limped off after six minutes, and emerged from the tunnel on crutches. Neilson later confirmed he tweaked his hamstring, which would suggest he will struggle to make the return leg.
In his absence, Nathaniel Atkinson was exposed for the first goal, which came from a direct punt up the pitch, and Halkett’s presence in the box was missed for the second as Hearts twice failed to clear.
Zurich also had several other good chances, and managed 12 shots from inside the box alone, while Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon made an outstanding save in the last minute to keep the score at 2-1.
But perhaps more concerning was the fact 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 team.
From open play Hearts registered fewer than one expected goals (xG) and, although they looked more threatening with Michael Smith playing balls in to fellow substitutes Liam Boyce and Alan Forrest, rarely tested the Zurich goalkeeper.
All that considered, a one-goal deficit is a good result for Hearts to take back to Edinburgh.
Will Tynecastle prove pivotal?
Neilson is clearly convinced his side have what it takes to improve and progress into the group phase alongside the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal.
The confidence comes from his players, but also home advantage. Tynecastle will be sold out, tightly packed and raucous under the lights for a first European tie for six years.
“Two years ago, we were playing against Queen of the South on a Friday night in the Championship,” Neilson added.
“We’re here against the Swiss champions, we’ve lost 2-1 but put on a brilliant performance.
“We go back to Tynecastle next Thursday, the place will be rocking and we’ve given ourselves a right good chance.”
‘I’m confident Hearts can progress’ – analysis
Former Hearts midfielder Michael Stewart on Sportscene
Looking at the second leg, I’m confident Hearts can progress. If you can get that front four of Boyce, Shankland, Forrest and Barrie McKay on from the start, Hearts are a dangerous side. I’ve not seen anything from Zurich that makes me fearful.
Former Hearts manager Craig Levein on Sportsound
If Hearts had gone for Zurich at 1-0… they’re not in good form and they’re vulnerable. I feel there was a missed opportunity there. Tynecastle will be rocking next week but they’ll have to play with more confidence.