BY ALAN TEMPLE, HIBERNIANS STADIUM – @CCP_Sport
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has revealed several of his exhausted stars vomited in the dressing room after a magnificent effort under the baking Maltese sun.
With the mercury hitting 27 degrees Celsius and the humidity measured at a suffocating 77 per cent, the Jambos turned in a laudable display in last night’s 0-0 draw against Birkirkara.
Alim Ozturk struck the bar and Conor Sammon saw a goal controversially disallowed, otherwise the capital club would be returning to Edinburgh with a deserved triumph this morning.
Nevertheless, it was a much-needed performance abroad to be proud of from a Scottish club – in conditions that saw West Ham United succumb to a 1-0 defeat against the same side at this stage of the Europa League last term.
And Neilson was beaming with pride as his players ‘recovered’ in the dressing room.
He lauded: “I was really pleased with the lads’ fitness levels. A couple were sick after the match and it’s really difficult to play in that heat.
“It was a really good performance, a mature one considering we have lots of guys who haven’t played in Europe before this season.
“Teams will come here and get beat and turned over. But we leave here in a good position.”
Hearts will be acutely aware that an away goal for Birkirkara outfit next week will leave them with an uphill task to prevail, however Neilson saw enough to suggest his side will progress to the third qualifying round.
Neilson continued: “They were exactly what we thought they would be like. When they beat West Ham out here last year they stifled the game and sat in with two banks of four.
“They wait for you to open up, get frustrated then look to score on the counter attack. But we stopped them doing it. If you’d said we have one game against them at Tynecastle I’d have taken it.”
Meanwhile, Neilson is sweating over the fitness of Perry Kitchen ahead of the second leg in Edinburgh next week.
The USA international had to be replaced by Don Cowie after half-an-hour at the Hibernians Stadium last night after complaining of hamstring discomfort.
He added: “He tweaked his hamstring so we decided to take him off. He’s never really had a muscle injury before so he isn’t quite sure about the severity of it.
“We’ll get it scanned on Friday and hopefully he could be back next week, if not the week after.”