London Hearts Supporters Club

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Csaba Laszlo <-auth Barry Anderson auth-> Eddie Smith
31 of 039 Michael Stewart 62 L SPL A

Hearts on song for Europa League

Dundee United 0, Hearts 1
THE monumental nature of this victory may not be fully acknowledged until the season is over.
When Michael Stewart's left foot stroked the decisive goal low beyond Lukasz Zaluska just after the hour, the ensuing celebrations hinted that something big had just happened.

After Hearts prevailed following an unjust penalty award, a late United onslaught and five minutes of stoppage time, the size of their achievement began to dawn.

Winning at Tannadice, where Dundee United had lost only twice in all competitions this season before Saturday, was massive. Just how massive won't be known until May when European placings are finalised, but there is little doubt Hearts accorded themselves a sizeable advantage at the weekend.

Victory took them five points clear of United in third place with 11 games remaining. Concurrently, it lodged them as favourites for a spot in the qualifying rounds of UEFA's new Europa League. And didn't they know it.

The full-time whistle prompted scenes of hysteria on the field as manager Csaba Laszlo, an emotional man at the best of times, hugged captain Robbie Neilson and defender Eggert Jonsson together, while David Obua threw his shirt into the delirious travelling support.

There were clenched fists aplenty and doubtless more celebrating done deep in the bowels of Tannadice, a ground which has hardly been kind to Hearts in recent years.

This was a victory stereotypical of the team under Laszlo. The kind achieved at several other potentially-hazardous venues this season, such as Inverness, Paisley and Kilmarnock. Biting and scratching, jostling and hustling, it was all there. The fare wasn't pretty, but it was effective.

In football parlance, it's called grinding out a result. And, if turgid football equals winning football, then Hearts are also grinding out a path to Europe.

The visitors were robust, over-zealous at times, however, Craig Levein does not assemble teams of shrinking violets and, in a physical context, United matched their opponents. In terms of possession, the hosts were the more dominant side but could not fashion a way past the defiant Janos Balogh. On the one occasion that the Hungarian goalkeeper was grounded and helpless, Neilson intervened to block Darren Dods' attempt in the first half.

Balogh denied Francisco Sandaza several times throughout the afternoon. His save from the Spaniard's penalty ten minutes from time was as crucial as any he is likely to make this season. Admittedly, it was difficult to determine which was more howling, Sandaza's strike or referee Eddie Smith's penalty award for a precisely-timed tackle by Jonsson on the same player.

As Balogh sprung to his right to collect Sandaza's weak attempt, his team-mates sensed justice was being done. Stewart certainly knew the connotations.

"Janos came up trumps and managed to make sure we got three points," he said. "I wasn't far away from the incident and my initial reaction is that it was a horrendous decision. Thankfully Janos saved it and we've managed to hang on for a massive result.

"Leading up to the game the manager was very clear about what needed to be done to make sure we got the win. A draw wouldn't have been a bad result for us so he was making sure we set our stall out to be difficult to beat.

"The pitch isn't fantastic at Tannadice and Dundee United are a big, strong, physical side. They have a lot players who are good in the air and you have to match up to that. A lot of the time football goes out the window. It's not pretty to watch but there are three points at stake.

"The manager has been consistent by talking about making sure we're in the top six. If we're in there we have the chance of challenging for third. We're third now and we're a few points ahead of fourth place, there's no reason why we shouldn't take confidence from that. At the start of the season, we'd have grabbed this position with both hands."

Sandaza's take on the penalty incident was the most interesting of all. "Was it a foul? I don't know, I'll need to see it again on TV," he said, before blaming the uneven surface for his miss. "I tried to level the grass with my boot before I took the kick but it was a really s*** attempt. I don't know what happened."

Levein remained pragmatic, saying: "I'm disappointed with the result, but not the performance. We did everything we could to try and win the game. We showed a little bit of desperation towards the end, but we had chances to win and I thought our midfield was better than theirs, so there's plenty of encouragement to be taken."

Stewart's goal was one of only two attempts on target by the visitors. "The ball broke to me along the edge of the box and I had a swing at it," he said. "There were a couple of people in front of me and it hit Adrian (Mrowiec] and came back into my path. I put my left foot through it and it nestled in the bottom corner. Adrian is claiming an assist off his backside."

That may be the Pole's attempt at justifying himself as a makeshift forward, but Laszlo is likely to reinstate Christian Nade for Wednesday's visit of Motherwell. "I think this was a very tough game for us," said the manager. "Especially the first 20 minutes when our goalkeeper saved from two very good situations for Dundee United.

"It was not easy for us. Larry Kingston and Christian Nade were out and we had to think about a new tactical shape. I think everything we did in training last week could be seen on the field. I think this was a game which was important for both teams. We won the game 1-0, we had a very good unit on the field and a good goalkeeper in the goal and the result was three points."

Laszlo was asked for his take on the penalty. "I need to look on the TV but Balogh did a good job," he smiled. "I am the coach of Heart of Midlothian and my goalkeeper made a fantastic save."

It is generally accepted that everything good about Hearts at present can be traced back to the Hungarian's appointment last July. Stewart has been effusive in his praise of Laszlo all season, and attributed the resilience shown on Tayside to his manager.

"You can see how passionate he is about being successful," he said. "He's an infectious character and, within the first couple of minutes of him being introduced to the players, we knew what was going to be lying ahead for us.

"It's been an enjoyable period of time working with him. We've had a couple of hurdles put in our way and fallen over a couple, but every time the manager is straight in, dusting us down, getting us back on our feet and looking forward to the next challenge."

"One Csaba Laszlo," sang the Hearts fans at the end. Having been tortured to excess by events at their club since it last appeared in Europe, every single one of them knew the potential significance of winning at Tannadice.

Taken from the Scotsman

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