Hearts v Birkirkara, 21 July 2016

I’ve only been to one European match before. My dad and I went on a whim one night to see Dundee United v Trabzonspor in the second leg of a UEFA Cup qualifying round game in 1997. So, 19 years after my first, I was rather looking forward to my second ever European match.

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The obligatory UEFA “Respect” flags

 

Tonight was also my first visit to Tynecastle, despite the fact I’ve lived in Edinburgh for 12 of the last 14 years, and at the right end of town for the last two. And what a great wee stadium it is too. The atmosphere it can generate, even for a Europa League qualifier against a Maltese side, is rather impressive. My long suffering wife Clare and I were in the Wheatfield Stand, opposite the lovely Archibald Leitch-designed Main Stand, which is to shortly be demolished and replaced with a more modern structure.

Hearts v Birkirkara

Tynecastle looking lovely in some July evening sunshine

To the game, and Hearts had taken a 0-0 draw from their away leg back to Tynie. Manager (and ex-East Fife player) Robbie Neilson had sent out a reasonably attacking side and it was Hearts who made much of the early running. Birkirkara’s plan was clearly to sit reasonably deep but to press the ball at every opportunity and hope to catch their Edinburgh opponents out.

Hearts’ first opportunity came about halfway through the first half, a lovely cross from the right producing an overhead-ish kick from Jamie Walker who was rather unlucky to see his shot come back off the crossbar. Sam Nicholson, meanwhile, was having some joy cutting in from the left hand side and he won Hearts a penalty with ten minutes to go to half-time. Prince Buaben’s effort was weak with the away keeper, who was pretty dodgy otherwise, easily getting down to his left. It was telling listening to the Jambos on the way home stewing over their recent lack of success from the spot which appeared to be a hangover from the previous season.

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A wee bit of first half action

Half time arrived with no score for either side, and the home crowd somewhat frustrated, particularly with the missed penalty. Hearts hadn’t created too many openings and they were a little sluggish in moving the ball forward. Their opponents were playing a fairly canny game and I must admit I thought Birkirkara’s pressing game would peter out in the second half. It didn’t.

A mere 10 minutes into the second half, Hearts were a goal down and staring at a European exit before the end of July. A set piece from near the halfway line was punted into the home penalty box. Three or four failed attempts by Hearts to clear their lines came and went before the ball fell to Christian Bubalovic, who finished well past Jack Hamilton.

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A second-half set piece for Hearts

Urgency but also anxiety then came from Hearts. Firstly Sam Nicholson cut in beautifully (again) from the left and was very unlucky to see his shot come off the crossbar. A few minutes later, Arnaud Djoum spooned his effort over when he should have scored, as the Maltese side’s defence foundered following a home set piece.

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The away support

Minutes after home boss Robbie Neilson brought on Juanma to chase the game, the cliched sucker punch was struck by Birkirkara. A swift counter attack found right back Edward Herrera, whose calm finish was greeted with (understandably) sheer joy from the away side and their 56 travelling supporters.

Following the second goal, Hearts finally upped the tempo and one of their most fluent attack moves of the night ended with Djoum’s cross being beautifully met by Connor “leapt like a” Sammon’s head – there were 17 minutes for Hearts to find two goals to take them through.

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A sliver of sunshine causes some sight issues for a few fans in the main stand.

Unfortunately, nothing more came for the home side. There was no lack of effort but a lack of quality and cutting edge, with too many passes being either required before the ball made it to near the away penalty area, or simply going astray. The home support will no doubt look back on that penalty miss in the first half as the turning point in the game and indeed the tie – the Maltese side were jumping for joy at full time which showed the scalp they believed they had taken. An ignominious early European exit for yet another Scottish club side, sadly.

What I will say though, is that Tynecastle is a great place to watch a game of football. As a curious observer with a bit of a leaning to the home team, I’ll definitely be back.

Heart of Midlothian 1-2 Birkirkara (Sammon; Bubalovic, Herrera)

Birkirkara win 2-1 on aggregate

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Euro 2016 – The Final

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The Stade de France, venue for the final of Euro 2016 (among other games) – photo by Liondartois

Well, from the semi final predictions anyway, I was almost bang on. France v Portugal will tonight contest the final of the 2016 European Championships. For now I’ll give some brief thoughts on the match ahead, with perhaps a longer post about the tournament itself later. Although, as I think I’ve mentioned before, the Scottish football season restarts next Saturday (16th) with a lovely heap of Scottish League Cup matches.

Firstly to the all-important prediction – I’m going to go for:

France 2-1 Portugal

I’ve thought since the start of the tournament (maybe other than the first 45.5 minutes of the semi against Germany) that France would win it, so I’ll stick to my guns. Portugal, having been Greeced in 2004, appear to be trying to Greece the tournament itself with their largely unadventurous football and (understandable) over-reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo.

I am kind of hoping the football gods have some say in the outcome too. Last time France were in a final on home soil, they were the neutral’s favourite in a match at the Stade France against a Portuguese-speaking nation with a Ronaldo in their side. And of course they won that 3-0. Plus ça change, as our cousins over the Channel might say. I’m hoping for a similar outcome tonight.

The one caveat I would have on my thoughts for tonight is the French defence. While they managed to just about prevent the Germans from scoring in the semi-finals, they have conceded goals to Iceland (2), Ireland and Romania (1 each) so far in this tournament. If Portugal can provide Nani and Mr Ronaldo with the supply they need, that might be the point where France concede goals. What I’m almost certain of is that Portugal’s plan will be to try instead to frustrate the French attack and then hit the hosts on the break.

This is likely to make for a relatively boring final. I’m hopeful for something more entertaining, but not necessarily expecting it. The fact that this coincides with the Wimbledon Mens’ Singles Final and the British Grand Prix (if you like that sort of thing) makes for a Sunday of tidying, throwing stuff out and then sitting in front of the telly for hours. Lovely stuff.

Euro 2016 – Semi Finals

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The Torre de Belem in Lisbon. Which I’ve mostly put here because (a) it is nice and (b) it’s in Portugal

After another reasonably dismal showing in my latest round of predictions (well, 50/50), it’s time for another mercifully brief Euro 2016 post.

Before I begin, I must leap unashamedly on to the bandwagon and say (a) how delighted I am that Wales are in the Euro 2016 semi finals and (b) how wonderful their performance was against Belgium on Friday night. Hal Robson-Kanu’s turn for goal number two was, patently, a piece of genius, while Chris Coleman has to be given enormous credit for the work he has done with his team.

Anyway, on to the predictions, and this time I’ll even go for scores just for the hell of it:

Portugal 1-0 Wales (AET) – as with last time I hope I’m very wrong but I think this might be one (probably quite boring) game too far for the Welsh. Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies’ suspensions will be particularly telling in contributing to the end of the Welsh adventure. And I really hope it isn’t Cristiano Ronaldo who gets the winner, as then that win will, as ever, be all about him (and his various abs).

France 2-1 Germany – neither side has particularly convinced me, particularly at the back, but I think France’s attacking prowess should just about see them through. Antoine Griezmann in particular seems to be improving as the tournament goes on – that and the home backing for the French might (if I’m right) see a repeat of that gloriously ill-tempered Euro 2000 semi-final, but this time in the final.

I’ll be back again for the final, and then perhaps a wee round-up of the tournament. Brilliantly, East Fife’s season starts again a week on Saturday (!) at home to Dundee in the League Cup group stage. Lovely.