London Hearts Supporters Club

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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]
38 of 066 Saulius Mikoliunas 61 E H

Hearts are given a Harsh lesson

YOU know how the saying goes, the one that emphasises the thin line between success and failure in Europe. Last night, Hearts were forced to endure that cruel reality of Champions League life as AEK Athens prised victory not from the jaws of defeat, but from the windpipe.

A dismal first-half display preceded an impressive retort after the interval, but Bruno Aguiar's 66th-minute dismissal for ungentlemanly conduct was as needless as it was awkward for the Edinburgh club on a night when their single-goal lead was overturned by a double Greek sting inside three dispiriting final minutes.

For inhabitants of the city who nursed hangovers this morning, the dejection may not have been so severe had AEK ran into what would have been a deserved two or three-goal lead during a thoroughly one-sided first half. However, the manner in which Lorenzo Serra Ferrer's side escaped at the end is likely only to gnaw at Hearts supporters for years to come.

Athlitiki Enosis Konstantinoupoleos Athens will not, it must be said, win this season's Champions League. They emerged as an excellent side on their latest visit to Scotland and are now overwhelming favourites to eliminate Hearts and accept a place in the tournament's group phase. But the continent's finest clubs will, without a second thought, execute on the Greeks the kind of incisive destruction that outdid Hearts. That notion was immovable as Murrayfield emptied in dusk last night.

Emerson, the former Rangers midfielder, and Vladimir Ivic were to end the evening as standouts for Ferrer, but prior to kick-off there was something surreal about singing along to a bagpiped version of Flower of Scotland before a game of football at the home of Scottish Rugby. The vocals amongst the home support were up to the task, though, as the national anthem was given a rousing rendition.

Whilst scarves twirled and flags rippled, the teams emerged to a spine-tingling welcome in the early-evening sunshine. "Judgment Day is here," exclaimed stadium announcer Scott Wilson, a slightly premature declaration given that this tie will not be ultimately decided until the teams reconvene in Athens in two weeks' time, but his desire to increase the hype was understandable.

Less than two minutes in, the buoyant home crowd were jolted by Traianos Dellas' header from Julio Cesar's corner which bounced off Craig Gordon's crossbar. Then a well constructed move down the AEK left involving Nikos Georgeas and Ivic ended with Julio Cesar shooting over. Hearts were unquestionably taken aback by the ferocity of their visitors' start, and Nikos Liberopoulos also had a shot from distance fly over the head of Gordon and into an increasingly concerned bunch of Jambos in Murrayfield's south stand.

The first sign of Valdas Ivanauskas' side as a force came in the 11th minute when they equalled the Greeks by striking woodwork. Aguiar rolled the ball to Saulius Mikoliunas on the left and he cut inside onto his supposedly weaker foot, the left, to drive the ball skimming off the left thigh of centre-back Bruno Cirillo and on to AEK's left post.

Despite their competitive inactivity, the wily Spaniard Ferrer had somehow managed to invigorate his players to the point where they were dictating the match tempo. Their movement when attacking perplexed the Hearts defence and resulted in them being hauled out of position unnecessarily, and this created an opening for Ivic and Liberopoulos to play a tidy one-two on 22 minutes before the former forced Gordon down to his right to gather a powerful shot.

Hristos Karipidis had been deployed in a slightly unfamiliar role to compensate for the absence of flu-ridden Julien Brellier. The Frenchman was forced out along with Deividas Cesnauskis to prevent the virus coursing through the Hearts squad, and the £200,000 Greek's debut involved assuming a central midfield position alongside Aguiar. However, whilst Brellier's expertise is protecting his back four, Karipidis was often found chasing the play when the ubiquitous Liberopoulos was orchestrating attacks for AEK from his berth just behind central striker Pantelis Kapetanos.

Criticising an out-of-position foreign player in his first outing for a new club would be churlish, although it could not be denied that Karipidis' positional sense was again exploited on 33 minutes when, in a sweeping forward venture, AEK Athens midfielder Ivic fed Panagiotis Lagos 30 yards from goal and the ball was instantly moved left to Julio Cesar in space. Only a critical last-minute sliding tackle by Steven Pressley forced the Brazilian's shot to loop up and over the goal, but the influence of the giant Serbian Ivic was becoming one of the game's main features as he accepted and delivered the ball with astonishing timing and precision. Beside him, it was difficult to believe that Emerson was the same player who had laboured so badly at Ibrox barely two years ago.

Ivanauskas was sombre and occasionally agitated as he leaned against the home dugout, a sight in stark contrast to his antics at Tynecastle on Sunday. His mood would not have been bettered by what occurred on 42 minutes. Pressley gifted a clearance to Julio Cesar, whose forward runs on the AEK left had not been tracked by Mikoliunas all evening, and he returned the ball with considerable interest across the face of goal. Gordon was able to tip behind for a corner, which Liberopoulos met with his chest to steer into the arms of the grateful Scotland goalkeeper.

The minimal contribution of Mikoliunas prior to the interval brought home the question of exactly what Hearts' record signing, Mirsad Beslija, must do in order to win favour with Ivanauskas. The Bosnian sat looking on from the bench whilst Mikoliunas got in the way of Aguiar as the Portuguese was in the act of shooting following a long Takis Fyssas throw. By then Karipidis had been withdrawn and replaced by Edgaras Jankauskas, with the Lithuanian clearly ordered by Ivanauskas to play an advanced midfield role ahead of Aguiar.

The intention was to inject the team with a greater impetus, but before that could be evinced Liberopoulos had a 25-yard shot deflect wide off Christophe Berra and Julio Cesar watched another of his dangerous crosses scrambled clear. Then, it was Miko time. The often-frustrating Lithuanian showed sufficient endeavour to get himself in at the back post to convert Roman Bednar's shot after it rebounded off the left post of Stefano Sorrentino.

Hearts had shown fine invention and industry down their left flank to fashion the opportunity, Michal Pospisil feeding Jankauskas who made progress to the edge of the penalty area before slipping a pass to Bednar for a shot. In the ensuing trackside celebrations, assistant coach John McGlynn saw his glasses fall to the turf, but referee Nicolai Vollquartz displayed premium eyesight to spot an act of stupidity by Aguiar moments later. With supporters still celebrating Mikoliunas' timely strike, the Portuguese indulged in an act of folly that will cost him his place in the second leg and leave Ivanauskas with a minor midfield headache.

Having been cautioned in the first half for a late tackle on Liberopoulos, the midfielder was shown a second yellow card and a subsequent red for throwing the ball away at a free-kick. Ivanauskas reacted almost instantly to reinforce his midfield and replaced Bednar with Lee Wallace, giving his side the most unusual central pairing of Wallace and Janauskas. It didn't seem to significantly affect the home performance, which had been upped considerably from the first half to dominate the tiring Greeks for large portions of the second 45 minutes.

Mikoliunas missed a glaring opportunity, again at the back post, when he sliced the ball on the six-yard line without a Greek marker in attendance, and Julio Cesar curled a vicious free-kick wide on 74 minutes. Liberopoulos wasted a free header from Julio Cesar's right-sided corner, and the Brazilian produced a stunning save from Gordon with four minutes remaining as he arced his free-kick towards the top left-hand corner. It appeared as if Hearts would hang on, but that assumption didn't count on a swinging left-sided cross from AEK substitute Stavros Tziortziopoulos and a pristine head glance from Kapetanos that took the ball beyond Gordon for a priceless away goal.

Then, disaster. In stoppage time, Liberopoulos let loose a right footer of minimal threat from 20 yards that cruelly deflected off Berra and gave Gordon no chance as it bulged his net. Hearts had been undone. AEK had crossed the line and effected one of those marginal European victories that are so difficult to accept. They may have deserved victory for their attacking outlook - they did, after all, record an astonishing 31 goal attempts during the game - but that won't ease the feelings of injustice which Ivanauskas found impossible to hide at full-time.

Taken from the Scotsman

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