Hearts had promised pre-match sky divers. Storm clouds ruled that out, so the team came down with a bump instead. The margin of Sparta's win, kick-started by Daniel Kolar's cracking first-half strike, did not sufficiently reflect the gulf in class. Hearts' hopes of progressing to the group stages of the Uefa Cup are all but over. The team had entered the pitch in smoke so thick from pre-game fireworks that it delayed kick-off by several minutes. They left with boos from their own fans ringing in their ears after a damp squib.
"It won't be easy [to go through on aggregate]," said the Hearts coach, Valdas Ivanauskas.Hearts suffered a surprise home defeat to St Mirren last weekend. Now this. Injuries have been a problem, with four midfielders and two strikers unavailable last night. But with the wheels threatening to come off any sustained challenge to the Old Firm, Ivanauskas knows his job could be under threat. "Ask someone else about that, not me," he said. "Tomorrow is training as normal."
The last Hearts manager to say that was Graham Rix, who was sacked by the Hearts owner, Vladimir Romanov, the next day. Romanov did his best to spice up the build-up yesterday by accusing a Russian referee, Yuri Baskakov, of being corrupt. The official presided over Hearts' defeat at AEK Athens in Champions' League qualifying. Uefa will now investigate the comments, and the claim.
On the pitch, in terribly wet and tiring conditions, Sparta acclimatised much the quicker. Ludovic Sylvestre unleashed one shot that Craig Gordon palmed over, but Gordon could do nothing to stop the opener from Kolar, rifled into the top corner from the edge of the box.
The Czechs are usually in the Champions' League but missed out for the first time in a decade. With a new coach - Michal Bilek replaced the sacked Stanislav Griga a fortnight ago - things could be looking up again. Hearts were not in it and, with 19 minutes left, Miroslav Matusovic extended the visitors' lead with a 25-yard shot.
Heart of Midlothian (4-4-2): Gordon; Neilson, Pressley, Berra, Wallace; Beslija (Tall, 64), Hartley, Aguiar, Mole; Bednar, Pinilla (Cesnauskis, 64). Substitutes not used: Banks (gk), Fyssas, Makela, Cesnauskis, Karipidis, Park.
Sparta Prague (4-1-4-1): Blazek; Pospech, Homola, Repka, Kadlec; Sivok; Kisel, Kolar (Hasek, 86), Sylvestre (Lustrinelli, 86), Simac (Matusovic, 63); Dosek. Substitutes not used: Grigar (gk), Drobny, Zabavnik, Jun.
Referee: P Bertini (Italy).