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<-Page <-Team Wed 09 Aug 2006 Hearts 1 AEK Athens 2 Team-> Page->
<-Srce <-Type Scotsman ------ Report Type-> Srce->
Valdas Ivanauskas <-auth Barry Anderson auth-> Nicolai Vollquartz
Aguiar Bruno [P Kapetanos 88] ;[N Liberopoulos 93]
8 of 066 Saulius Mikoliunas 61 E H

Hearts Berra has Greeks on his mind


WHILST Valdas Ivanauskas busied himself by leaping and shrieking his way around the Hearts technical area on Sunday, one of his youngest charges was the embodiment of on-field composure and equilibrium.

Christophe Berra, in his finest game for the club, delivered a performance laced with maturity and coherence in completely nullifying the threat of Maciej Zurawski and Kenny Miller. As supporters digest the poignant and psychologically-significant 2-1 victory over Celtic in the SPL's second weekend, it should not be overlooked that the 21-year-old's coming of age has been timed to consummate perfection.

Tomorrow evening at Murrayfield, AEK Athens will arrive for their first competitive outing of the season - a Champions League final qualifying round first leg which has the potential to be as acrimonious and unrelenting as the recent court battle between Tommy Sheridan and News International. And, like last week's legal verdict, there's a twist in the tale.

Hearts' recent recruitment of Hristos Karipidis reinforces the Greek element within Ivanauskas' squad with Takis Fyssas already an established member. It also provides a priceless insight to Lorenzo Serra Ferrer's side. But more pertinently for Berra, any ambitions of taking on the mantle of the departed Andy Webster will be put under enormous pressure from Karipidis as the Greek competes for a place alongside Steven Pressley in central defence.

There will be few tears shed by the new signing if he successfully fractures the Pressley-Berra partnership to start against his compatriots tomorrow. However, an objective point of view states that Berra's faultless displays thus far in the new campaign should ordain that he keeps his place with the temperature on the Tynecastle pressure cooker beginning to take an ever-upward trajectory.

The Champions League is no place for wet-behind-the-ears kids, and in that respect Berra has proven himself copiously prepared for whatever Europe will throw at him. "I think me and Elvis are doing really well as a partnership at the moment and I want to keep that going," he says.

"I don't feel I've done myself any harm, I think I've done well in every game I've played, and hopefully the manager takes that into account. I don't think he can drop me, really. We are a big club and if we are going to play Champions League football then we need cover for all positions. Since Webby went away we've needed another centre-half, and that's great for me and for Hristos. It gives me competition.

"I thought we did really well at the back on Sunday and you could see that from what little Celtic created. They were generally restricted to long shots and their goal was a breakaway from a corner. The whole team worked hard and defended well and we should be proud of that."

Even more encouraging from a Hearts perspective at the weekend was the adaptability shown by both centre-backs with new men deployed to flank them in the form of Ibrahim Tall and Lee Wallace. "As a defensive unit you need to have everyone used to playing together, but the boys who came in were brilliant," continued Berra. "The changes didn't affect anybody. Ibby was having a great game until he had to go off and Robbie was excellent in replacing him as we've come to expect. On the other side it was Lee Wallace's first game for a while but he was faultless."

What price a similarly defiant defensive display at Murrayfield would carry. Assuming Ivanauskas accedes to Berra's wishes when naming his starting 11, then the likeable Scot will find himself tracking the enterprising Nikos Liberopoulos around the home of Scottish rugby tomorrow evening. Ten years Berra's senior, the former Panathinaikos forward was AEK's top goalscorer and most valuable player last season.

Either Pantelis Kapetanos or Gustavo Manduca, who arrived in Athens from Benfica only last week, will be Berra's other immediate opponent in the Greeks' attack. Brazilian by birth, Brazilian by nature is an appropriate summation of Manduca's talents in the second striker's role, from which he often favours dropping off into the gap between the opposition's midfield and defence.

"It's going to be very difficult, and that's what happens when it's back to European football again," says Berra, again displaying a philosophical side beyond his years. "AEK are a top team but we have a chance and if we play to our potential then I think we can easily win tomorrow. We haven't spoken much about them yet but we have videos of their team and I've been watching their strikers in action.

"Elvis mentioned that Emerson plays for them but all of their players will be of good quality with excellent technique."

The Spaniard Ferrer's coaching career includes salubrious periods in charge of three different clubs in his homeland - Mallorca, Real Betis [twice] and, most notably, Barcelona. He has won the Copa del Rey and led Betis to an unprecedented third-place La Liga finish ahead of Real Madrid in the 1990s. Accomplishments like these detail him as a wily master of the continental game and, at 53, he will have the means to set AEK up in the most orderly fashion. Berra is right to remain unperturbed, though, for Hearts must consider that four competitive outings to the Greeks' none will provide some semblance of an edge to their play tomorrow. Add to that the statistic of no defeats, competitive or otherwise, since a meaningless 2-0 reverse by Rangers at Ibrox back in May.

"This is what I wanted to do," Berra goes on. "I wanted to be a footballer, I wanted to play at the highest level and to do so you have to perform like this week in, week out. Look at the Chelseas and the Barcelonas of this world, they have to play in the Champions League every year. If you want to be a top player, you have to deal with that. Hopefully my time will come in the future, but I'm at Hearts just now and I will give my best for the club to prove that I'm worth a regular place in this team. Hearts have given me a five-year contract and some stability, but I'm not the kind of player to rest until the last year of that contract and then start trying again. I'm going to give it everything every day here.

"We want to keep a clean sheet in the first leg, but first and foremost we need to win the game. Even winning 2-1 is a great result and it will only be half-time in the tie. It will be a different type of game for us but we will need to attack sensibly and try to score because over there they will be coming at us."

With that in mind, Roman Bednar is a decent weapon for Hearts to have in their armoury given his four goals in four games so far this season. But if the on-form Czech is leading the firing line, then Berra is a central component in the hitherto immovable wall behind him.

Taken from the Scotsman

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