Hearts exited the Europa League this evening at the hands of Birkirkara, losing 2-1.
The Maltest won the tie 2-1 on aggregate thanks to second-half goals from Christian Bubalovic and Edward Herrera, while Conor Sammon pulled one back.
Robbie Neilson made only one change from the side that drew 0-0 in Malta a week ago, with Sam Nicholson replacing the injured Perry Kitchen.
It was nearly first blood to the visitors inside two minutes. A ball to the back post wasn’t cleared and Jack Hamilton made a smart block from close range to keep the scores level.
The crossbar prevented Hearts from taking the lead in the 26th minute. Callum Paterson did well to gather possession deep inside the Birkirkara half and floated a ball to the back door for Walker to hit a bicycle kick which crashed off the bar and bounced the wrong side of the line before being cleared.
35 minutes in and were handed a golden opportunity to take the lead. Sam Nicholson skinned Cain Attard on the edge of the box and cut inside, only to be brought down from behind. Prince Buaben stepped up but his penalty was stopped by Miroslav Kopric.
Faycal Rherras went close before the half was out, bursting forward into the final third before placing an effort across the goalkeeper, but he couldn’t angle his shot on target.
The opening goal came in the 54th minute and it was the visitors who got their nose in front. A free-kick into the danger area saw the ball ricochet around the box before Bubalovic stabbed it high into the top corner from eight-yards out.
Hearts were again denied by the crossbar just moments later. Nicholson cut inside from the left and unleashed a thunderbolt which thumped off the woodwork.
A minute later substitute Juanma’s prod goalwards was palmed out by Kopric but Arnaud Djoum ballooned the follow up over the bar.
Birkirkara put the game to bed after 67 minutes. Vito Plut’s delightful through ball saw Herrera latch on and slide through the legs of the onrushing Hamilton, and into the back of the net.
The Jambos pulled one back in the 73rd minute. Djoum’s excellent first-time cross found Sammon, who leapt unmark to direct his header into the opposite corner of the net.
Hearts camped out in Birkirkara’s half, desperately searching for more goals. Djoum had a half chance, dragging an effort wide from 20-yards.
The goals didn’t come however, and Hearts bow out of European competition.
Hearts: Hamilton, L.Smith (Juanma, 57'), Ozturk, Rossi (Muirhead, 74'), Rherras, Paterson, Buaben (Cowie, 80'), Djoum, Nicholson, Walker, Sammon. Subs: Noring, Souttar, Godinho, Zanatta.
Birkirkara: Kopric, Herrera, Bubalovic, Sciberras, Marcellina, Srdan (Guillaumier, 72'), Plut, Bajada (Jovic, 64'), Zerafa, Scicluna (Camenzuli, 90'), Attard. Subs: Apkan, Djoedjevic, Buttigieg, Marrotti.
Referee: Ville Nevalainen (FIN)
Top man: Sam Nicholson