London Hearts Supporters Club

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<-Page <-Team Wed 09 Aug 2006 Hearts 1 AEK Athens 2 Team-> Page->
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Valdas Ivanauskas <-auth Phil Gordon auth-> Nicolai Vollquartz
Aguiar Bruno [P Kapetanos 88] ;[N Liberopoulos 93]
15 of 066 Saulius Mikoliunas 61 E H

Hearts eye European gold with £6 million crunch tie

By Phil Gordon
THE Athens of the North is overflowing with anticipation of a day in the Champions League sun. If Heart of Midlothian can secure enough goals tonight to accompany them to the real Athens in two weeks’ time, entry to European football’s promised land may be within their grasp.

AEK Athens stand between Hearts and a £6 million payday. Overcoming the Greek side in the third qualifying round would earn a passport to the lucrative group stage. More than 35,000 fans are expected to throng Murrayfield for the first leg tonight, despite live television coverage, underlining the depth of passion at Hearts.

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Vladimir Romanov, the owner, has appealed to all Hearts supporters to eschew the comfort of television to back Valdas Ivanauskas’s side in the bid to join Barcelona, Chelsea et al in the group stage and share in the revenue that would generate. Indeed, Craig Gordon, the goalkeeper, says that the AEK encounter is the biggest game in the club’s history.

“It has to be the biggest game of my club career for the simple reason it is the biggest match Hearts have ever had,” Gordon said. “The money involved makes it huge for a club the size of Hearts. However, it does not seem like the players are nervous — everybody is looking forward to the game.

“Hearts are wanting to move on to the next level and this is part and parcel of that. I have played in big games before and it is good to be involved in them. It is exciting, not something I see as a burden or a big pressure on me. It is time to show what you can do on the biggest possible stage against the best on the Continent. We are the underdogs — they are the seeded team. I do not think anyone expects us to win, but we will give it our best shot.”

When Hearts paraded the Scottish Cup around Edinburgh in 1998 and 2006, more than 250,000 people packed the streets. Yet Ivanauskas, the head coach, feels that tonight’s meeting eclipses even last season’s Tennent’s Scottish Cup final win over Gretna at Hampden Park.

“This game is bigger,” Ivanauskas said. “The final was an emotional game for Edinburgh, for the Hearts fans and players, but, from my point of view, the Champions League is more important. These two games are what they worked hard for all last season.”

Hearts’ decision to stage their European matches at the home of Scottish rugby for financial reasons, rather than their own partisan Tynecastle — which has just 17,000 seats — was criticised by Edgaras Jankauskas, who has recovered from a hamstring injury.

The former FC Porto striker’s view was not endorsed by Gordon. “It is a special atmosphere at Tynecastle,” the Scotland goalkeeper said, “but if we can get more than 40,000 at Murrayfield, that can more than compensate.”

Ivanauskas has several selection problems. Paul Hartley, the playmaker, has been out all season with a groin injury, while Ibrahim Tall, the central defender, damaged knee ligaments in the 2-1 victory over Celtic on Sunday and will be missing for a month.

Takis Fyssas, the Greece player, will return at left back to face his compatriots and Ivanauskas will decide whether to give a debut to another Greek, Hristos Karipidis, signed only last Thursday from PAOK Salonika. Either Karipidis or Christophe Berra, the Scotland under-21 cap, will partner Steven Pressley in the centre of defence.

AEK have also been active in the transfer market and will give debuts tonight to Gustavo Manduca, the former Benfica striker, and Martin Pautasso, a right back acquired from Independiente, of Argentina.

If Hearts have ambitions of reaching a new level in Europe, so do AEK. Their new coach, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, was lured from Spain in June to try to lift the Greek capital’s third club out of the shadows of its city rivals, Olympiacos and Panathinaikos. “We are anxious,” Ferrer said. “We have worked intensively and this is the week we have been waiting for.”

Ferrer is no stranger to immense expectation. He was once coach at Barcelona and won the Spanish Cup twice with Real Mallorca. “This is the most important game for us,” he said. “We will try very hard to bring success, to build up our prestige, to satisfy and to make our fans happy. We have reached the hour of the fight, and the first fight is the most important. I expect an exciting and passionate game.”

However, Demis Nikolaidis, the AEK president, added a note of caution. “If we don’t qualify, we could have financial problems,” he said. “We have already spent money we don’t have, so it is a big risk.”

One player not expected to feature for Hearts tonight is Mirsad Beslija. The club’s record signing could be going back to Belgium just eight months after joining from Racing Genk for £850,000, with Sporting Lokeren trying to take him on loan.

HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN (possible; 4-4-2): C Gordon — R Neilson, C Berra, S Pressley, T Fyssas — S Mikoliunas, B Aguiar, J Brellier, N McCann — R Bednar, E Jankauskas.

AEK ATHENS (possible; 4-4-2): D Chiotis — N Georgeas, E Moras, T Dellas, M Pautasso — Emerson, V Icic, D Tozser, V Lakis — G Manduca, N Liberopoulos.

Referee: N Vollquartz (Denmark).

Taken from

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