FK RFS 0-2 Hearts: Lawrence Shankland and Alan Forrest earn Jam Tarts victory away in Latvia
The opponents may have been limited. The unassuming location here at the 7,000-capacity Skonto Stadium may be a million miles from the continent’s major football cathedrals.
But Hearts beating RFS Riga was still a very welcome sight as Tynecastle’s side took the first group stage win for a Scottish club in Europe this season.
What a timely boost this was for Robbie Neilson’s side, who had lost six of their seven previous games amid a string of injuries that resurfaced here in the Latvian capital with an early recurrence of defender Craig Halkett’s hamstring problems.
Lawrence Shankland scored the opening goal from the penalty spot as Hearts defeated FK RFS 2-0
FK RFS (3-4-3): Steinbors; Jagodinskis, Stuglis, Lipuscek; Vlalukin (Sorokins 58), Panic, Saric, Mares; Simkovic (Friesenbichler 58), Ilic, Santana.
Unused subtitles: Cerniauskas, Dubra, Maksimenko, Nerugals, Rakels, Varslavans, Zaleiko.
Booked: Jagodinskis, Simkovic, Mares, Panic.
Sent: Morozs (manager).
Manager: Victor Morozs.
Hearts (3-4-3): Gordon; Halkett (Neilson 22), Kingsley, Cochrane; Smith, Devlin, Grant (Herring 70), Halliday; Ginnelly (Humphrys 79), Shankland (Forrest 79), McKay.
Unused subtitles: Atkinson, Clark, Henderson, Mackay-Steven, Pollock, Sibbick, Smith, Stewart.
Goalscorers: Shankland 43, Forrest 90+3.
Booked: Cochrane, Shankland, Gordon, Ginnelly, Herring.
Manager: Robbie Neilson.
Referee: Alexander Stavrev.
But a stylish penalty in the first half from striker Lawrence Shankland and a last gasping goal from substitute Alan Forrest secured Edinburgh’s first European group stage away game since Feyenoord’s 3-0 defeat in October 2004.
Last season’s third-placed squad in the Scottish Premiership was well worthy of their win, but they still had to rely on Craig Gordon’s signature genius.
Scotland’s outstanding goalkeeper made two stunning saves early in the half to keep his side on course and secure three potentially priceless points.
Hearts are now second in the Europa Conference League Group A after Fiorentina lost 3-0 to Istanbul Basaksehir in Turkey after surprising 1-1 at home to Riga on matchday one.
That makes for a delightful double header for Hearts against the Serie A side in Tynecastle on October 6 before the return leg in Florence a week later.
As the site of Riga’s own LNK Sports Parks more than met UEFA requirements, the Latvian champions moved all their European matches to the nearby Skonto Stadium.
Aberdeen fans have painful memories of its location when Willie Miller’s side drew 0-0 here 18 years ago before leaving the UEFA Cup on away goals after a 1-1 draw at Pittodrie.
And on a Latvian evening that was so cold that temperatures were, well, Baltic, Hearts almost got so cold within the first two minutes.
Brazilian forward Emerson Deocleciano swung past Michael Smith before firing on target. The ball sped past Gordon, but hit the cross post and crossbar in a big early elimination.
The attacker stepped up from 12 yards just before half-time and didn’t give the goalkeeper a chance
When the visitors came into action, Josh Ginnelly hit a shot from the edge of the penalty area, which was turned for a corner with the fingertips of Riga goalkeeper Pavels Steinbors.
And there was a real scare for Riga when Stephen Kingsley’s great throw from the left was misjudged by Steinbors and the ball fell six meters from Ginnelly.
The heart attacker should have scored, but couldn’t get strong enough contact with the ball. Referee Aleksandar Stavrev spared Ginnelly’s blush, Steinbors’ harsh statement was offended.
By now Hearts had grown into the game and the Scots had 65 percent of the ball. Still, they lacked a great last ball to create chances for Shankland.
And there was a major setback when Halkett suffered what appeared to be a recurrence of the hamstring injury that had sidelined him for the past four weeks.
Alan Forrest is embraced by Cameron Devlin after taking the win for Hearts late
Neilson admitted before kick-off that taking on the central defender was a risk. It didn’t pay off because the 27-year-old couldn’t go on.
Then former Dundee United boy Lewis Neilson came to restrain Riga danger Andrej Ilic, a physically imposing Serbian frontman who has already scored 20 goals this season. But the 19-year-old could be up to the challenge.
As halftime approached, Hearts created their best chance of the game yet. Alex Cochrane ran to the left and cut off for Andy Halliday. The former Rangers midfielder’s shot was on target, but Steinbors used his knee to save.
Then Shankland ran on a Ginnelly deflection into the penalty area and dipped the ball past Steinbors – but past the far post.
Still, Hearts got closer and they soon had a great opportunity to take the lead when Vitalijs Jagondinskis blocked a cross from Halliday with his arm. The Hearts players were clamoring for a penalty, and referee Stavrev agreed.
Shankland stepped up and, with the despondency of a bomb disposal expert, skillfully sent the ball into the postage corner of the net.
Hearts players appeal after RFS defender Vitalijs Jagodinskis handles the ball in the penalty area
But as was so often the case, Gordon came to the rescue before half-time during a chaotic, action-packed end to the first half.
The veteran’s first save was impressive enough, stopping a savage shot from Tomislav Saric on the turn. But his second stop was even better, as he somehow prevented Ziga Lipuscek from diving from close range with a thumping header.
‘Scotland’s Number 1’ chanted the frenzied 1000 traveling Hearts fans.
Ginnelly then had the chance to give Hearts a 2-0 lead at halftime. Instead of firing, he tried to find Shankland on the back post and the attacker couldn’t turn the ball home when he should have done better.
As Hearts leaned back in the second half, they nervously watched set pieces against a long side of Riga. But offensively, Barrie McKay got more on the ball and what a sight he is in full swing.
Hearts fans celebrate first group stage win for a Scottish club in Europe this season
A defensive splitting pass left Shankland only marginally offside, but the Hearts striker poked the net just in case.
Gordon was then shown a yellow card for handling outside his penalty area in the left back area. Apoplectic Riga manager Viktors Morosz wanted a red card, but referee Stavrev was right by giving a warning.
Shots from Shankland, Kingsley and Halliday were all forced saves from Steinbors before Ilic missed Riga’s best chance to equalize this enjoyable game.
Substitute Forrest made Ilic pay with a clinical finish in stoppage time as Hearts kicked off their Europa Conference League campaign. And what an adventure would still be in store.