London Hearts Supporters Club

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

Trip down memory lane shows Hearts players what's at stake


THE match against Aberdeen which clinched Hearts' place in the Champions League back in May was such a nerve-jangling occasion that even many diehard supporters of the Edinburgh club would shrink from watching it again. A penalty from Paul Hartley secured a 1-0 win and with it the runners-up slot in the SPL, but there was precious little football on display.

Having lived through the evening and seen it come to a joyful conclusion, however, the Hearts team were happy, on a recent journey to a match, to watch it again. They might learn nothing from it in terms of tactical knowledge, but it was a forceful reminder to them of just how important it was to the club to qualify, for the first time, for the Champions League - or at least for the Champions League qualifying stages.

That match came at the end of a long, emotionally draining campaign for Hearts. Watching it again enabled the players to recall how much effort they had put in to claiming a place in European football's premier tournament - and reinforced their desire to hold on to that place for as long as possible.

They have no interest in the fact that, should they lose to AEK Athens in the third qualifying round, the first leg of which is at Murrayfield tonight, they will have a place in the UEFA Cup. That will be no compensation for a taste of the real thing.

"There was no special purpose [at first] in showing them the Aberdeen game," the head coach, Valdas Ivanauskas, said yesterday. "That was one of several matches that was a video we put on when we were on the bus. The players responded with so many emotions and it was good to see. I saw especially with Paul Hartley's penalty that suddenly the whole pressure was off."

Given the millions on offer to clubs that reach the group stages, the Aberdeen match was therefore, financially at least, more important than the victory in the Scottish Cup final which followed ten days later. Certainly, the tie against AEK is being played on a bigger stage than the game against Gretna, and not only in the sense that the capacity of Murrayfield is around 15,000 greater than that of Hampden.

"The Scottish Cup final was an emotional game, but for me this is more important," as Ivanauskas said. Domestic victories have their place, but Vladimir Romanov's vision for the club is about, at the very least, becoming a regular, established competitor in the latter stages of the Champions League.

Ivanauskas is the coach in place as Hearts try to hurdle the last obstacle before the group stages, but he insisted yesterday that teamwork was paramount, and the coaches who preceded him last season deserved credit as well as him and his current assistants. "Where we are today is a big process which started with George Burley and went on with Graham Rix," he said. "It's a joint effort. It's important to prove your quality every day."

Such self-effacement may be more appealing than egomania, but Ivanauskas deserves credit for being more than just one among equals. He rescued the club's league campaign after it had gone badly off the rails under Rix, restoring the drive and desire which had been present in the short spell when Burley had been at the helm.

If things go wrong either tonight or at any time over the next few months, Burley and Rix will not be around to shoulder the blame: Ivanauskas will carry the can for failure, so he should therefore be given the credit if things go right.

And, after a tentative start to the season, they are showing distinct signs of going right. Paul Hartley is still a big miss - although he could be on the bench against Falkirk at the weekend and is thus in with a chance of playing in the return leg against the Greeks in a fortnight - but on Sunday against Celtic Bruno Aguiar looked far more comfortable in the playmaker's role.

The Portuguese midfielder himself has some relevant experience of this stage of the tournament, having been a Benfica player two years ago when they lost to Belgian opposition. "I don't want to repeat the experience of losing to Anderlecht," Aguiar said. "It took us a week to recover after that match. "We'll do everything possible to win this game. Last season was very stressful, so being in the Champions League was very important."

Hearts will not tinker too much with the team which beat Celtic three days ago, but will welcome Takis Fyssas back into the defence in place of Lee Wallace, and could restore Edgaras Jankauskas alongside the in-form Roman Bednar up front if his hamstring injury does not show an adverse reaction to yesterday's training. Deividas Cesnauskis could come in on the right side of midfield for Saulius Mikoliunas, and Robbie Neilson will be behind either of those Lithuanians at right-back.

Neilson was on the bench for the Celtic game as Ibrahim Tall was given a start, but the Senegalese defender is now out for four weeks after damaging knee ligaments in the first half of that match, so the Scotland international played for around an hour. Tiago Costa, the former Benfica reserve who signed last week, should therefore be on the bench as cover for Neilson at right-back and also if required for the right side of midfield.

Mirsad Beslija was among those who trained yesterday at Murrayfield and is another who is in contention for a place among the substitutes. Michal Pospisil will be an understudy if Jankauskas starts, but it remains to be seen whether Ivanauskas will opt for a second striker among his seven subs - and whether that striker will be Juho Makela or Calum Elliot.

The fringe players add adornment, but it is the five who form the spine of the team - Craig Gordon, Steven Pressley, Julien Brellier, Aguiar and Jankauskas - who will need to be clinically effective if the journey which began with that game against Aberdeen is to have another stage to it beyond this tie.

Taken from the Scotsman

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