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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 Stuart Bathgate auth-> Nicolai Vollquartz
Aguiar Bruno [P Kapetanos 88] ;[N Liberopoulos 93]
17 of 066 Saulius Mikoliunas 61 E H

Athens worried lack of competitive action could tell in first leg

AEK Athens have travelled to Edinburgh with high hopes of reaching the Champions League group stages, but they are aware that their opponents tonight have one distinct advantage over them. The Greek league, in which they were runners-up last season, does not start until the end of the month, whereas the SPL has seen two rounds of fixtures; what is more, Hearts have also had the two matches against Siroki Brijeg in the second qualifying round to get up to speed for tonight's match at Murrayfield.

"Certainly, as our league has not started yet, that is definitely an advantage for Hearts," the Greeks' veteran Spanish coach, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, said yesterday before taking his squad through a brief training session at the home of Scottish rugby. "Also, the last game they played was against Champions League opposition in Celtic, and winning that provided them with a big boost to their morale and confidence."

AEK played a friendly against Benfica last week, and their captain, Traianos Dellas, insisted they had prepared well for this third-round tie. But, as Hearts showed in beating Osasuna, looking good in a pre-season friendly is not necessarily a sign that you will hit the ground running in your competitive campaign, and one could therefore detect a note of caution about the pronouncements of both Dellas and Ferrer.

That, of course, could be a permanent part of their make-up. Valdas Ivanauskas, the Hearts coach, characterised them as a very disciplined team, and making a patient, even tentative, start to a two-leg tie will probably suit them well.

Having said that, they did not give the impression of coming to Edinburgh to shut up shop. Ferrer made the obligatory respectful noises about the opposition, but he also suggested they could snatch a potentially vital goal by playing an intelligent counter-attacking game.

"I don't have doubts, I've got confidence," he said. "I know we've had to work very hard to reach this point. I'm also conscious [Hearts] are a good team, but no-one can take away our dream of getting through this qualifying round.

"We've been working with this dream for some time. I can see my players are eager to win the match and show the AEK fans our objectives are good. But, I repeat, we have enormous respect for our opponents.

"We know more or less the characteristics and principles of their play. They play a pretty direct and powerful game, but they're also capable of playing football. We're convinced that counter-attacking can lead to a goal. I believe it's a very equal tie, and we may need that little bit of luck which is so often required in sport."

AEK have beaten the last two Scottish teams they have encountered in European competition - Rangers in a Champions League qualifier and Hibs in a UEFA Cup match - but Ferrer insisted that past results against a different team from the same country were more or less irrelevant.

"These results against Scottish clubs count for little," added the coach. "You have to regard each match as a new story. You can't live in the past."

Indeed, in terms of European achievements, AEK do not have much of a past in which to live. They have got to the group stages of the Champions League twice in the last decade, and although that is two times more than Hearts have managed, it does not suggest a team who are so consistently strong that the Scottish runners-up should immediately start dreaming about that consolation prize of a place in the UEFA Cup.

Dellas insisted, though, that for their part AEK had no interest in playing second fiddle either. Although he acknowledged that the opening stages of tonight's tie might prove tricky to negotiate, he said he and his team-mates had no intention of seeing their collective dream dashed.

"Hearts are a typical Scottish team, and they press a lot," he said. "It's definitely an advantage for them that they've played four competitive matches, but we've played friendlies and are very focused.

"It's going to be a hot game, and the first ten minutes will be very crucial. But we are here to do something big.

"We are here to achieve victory. I'm not going to talk about the financial benefits [of reaching the group stages]. There are other benefits, such as the experience."

Taken from the Scotsman

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