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<-Page <-Team Wed 09 Aug 2006 Hearts 1 AEK Athens 2 Team-> Page->
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Valdas Ivanauskas <-auth None auth-> Nicolai Vollquartz
Aguiar Bruno [P Kapetanos 88] ;[N Liberopoulos 93]
42 of 066 Saulius Mikoliunas 61 E H

Hearts' luck runs out but Greeks are worth their win

Hearts 1

AEK Athens 2

JUST as Hearts looked like travelling to Greece in a fortnight for the second leg of this Champions League third-round qualifier with a slender advantage thanks to an opportunistic goal from Saulius Mikoliunas, two late scores rendered their task almost impossible.

The equaliser from Pantelis Kapetanos two minutes from time would on its own have tipped the tie firmly in favour of the Greeks, but the cruel deflection which gave Nikolaus Lymperopoulos the winner in stoppage time means that the Edinburgh team have the steepest of slopes to scale if they are to reach the group stages.

AEK, inspired by the inventive flair of Lymperopoulos and Julio Cesar, and marshalled from the back by the formidable physical presence of Traianos Dellas, were more together as a team and more gifted as individuals. They could easily have been two goals up at half-time, and after the second-half sending-off of Bruno Aguiar they should have done more with their numerical advantage.

Hearts battled bravely after an inauspicious start, but at times they were simply outclassed. The most hopeful aspect of the tie from their point of view is the two-week gap between legs, as by the time of the return match Paul Hartley should be up and running again. The midfielder, whose absence has been the major cause of the SPL runners-up playing below their best, is expected to be on the bench against Falkirk on Saturday, and if all goes well will start in Athens.

But his team-mates will have to improve considerably by then if they are to have a chance. The scale of improvement required happens extremely rarely over the time scale in question.

Hearts, it is true, suffered some ill fortune before the match. They had been expected to make changes from the line-up which had begun against Celtic three days earlier, and, while two of the three alterations were indeed predictable, the third had not been foreseen.

Takis Fyssas was always going to come back instead of Lee Wallace, and Robbie Neilson would probably have reclaimed his place from Ibrahim Tall even before the latter was injured. Julien Brellier, however, had been expected to hold on to his place - but word had spread throughout the day that Brellier, Deividas Cesnauskis and Edgaras Jankauskas had been ruled out with a virus.

The last-named, whose comeback had been in doubt in any case because of injury, was apparently fit enough to make the bench, but the other two were indeed out altogether. The loss of Cesnauskis posed no great problem in selection - Mikoliunas started instead of him, as had been the case against Celtic - but replacing Brellier looked more troublesome.

The Frenchman may not be Vladimir Romanov's favourite player, but he does play a vital anchoring role, both in terms of protecting his defence and initiating attacks from recovered possession.

Given the players available to him, Valdas Ivanauskas's only plausible choice as Brellier's replacement was Christos Karipidis, who was making his debut. But, while the newly-signed Greek has a reputation as a quality footballer, he was supposedly recruited as a centre-back, while members of the AEK party suggested his best position is right-back. In other words, he might not be expected to fit naturally into the holding midfield role.

Still, Hearts had begun the Celtic match with a line-up which troubled some of their supporters - Tall and Wallace having been named as the full-backs - and that game, a 2-1 win, produced the team's most impressive showing of the season so far.

The mood of the home support was therefore optimistic as their team began their bid to go through to the competition's group stages. After all, this is already the furthest they have got in the premier tournament of European club football, their previous two forays into the European Cup having ended in the first round.

It was AEK who began more brightly, however, forcing two corners in the first couple of minutes, from the second of which Lymperopoulos headed against Craig Gordon's bar.

Play was held up briefly for an injury to Bruno Cirilla, but AEK resumed in exactly the manner they had left off, playing the high-tempo which is commonly regarded as one of the best attributes of Hearts' play. Picking up possession on the edge of the penalty area, Lymperopoulos wheeled then shot just over the bar. Moments later he was at the heart of the play again, though when dispossessed he dived theatrically, failing to impress the Danish referee.

When Traianos Dellas, the Greeks' captain, had spoken of the importance of the opening ten minutes, it had been presumed he was stressing the need for a solid start. Instead, if his team-mates' play was anything to go by, he had meant his team should aim at getting a valuable away goal within that spell.

They did not succeed, but they had done enough to suggest they might outclass Hearts, and it was therefore a relief to the home support when, just after that ten-minute mark, Mikoliunas came close to scoring with a cross-cum-shot which was deflected off the post by Bruno Cirillo.

The Lithuanian midfielder was in the thick of things moments later, too, and was about to initiate a promising attack when he was taken out by Nikolaos Georgeas. The Greek received the first yellow card of the night for the offence.

With 20 minutes on the clock, Mikoliunas found himself in space on the edge of the visitors' box when a cross from Fyssas fell to him. He took a steadying touch, but leaned back too much and the shot did not dip enough to come close to concerning Stefano Sorrentino in the AEK goal.

AEK were looking like the home team: Hearts, with those rare breaks upfield, like the away side harbouring hopes of snatching a score against the grain.

Aguiar, Hartley's stand-in, was finding it difficult to become involved never mind dominate, and perhaps showed a touch of frustration when he fouled Lymperopoulos and promptly received a yellow card for it.

Ten minutes from half-time AEK came close to scoring with a series of corners, from one of which Michal Pospisil headed back against his own post. Gordon eventually relieved the pressure then with a clean take of a cross from Julio Cesar, and just before the break had to scramble back when caught off his line to save an intelligent, angled effort from the same player.

The interval brought respite to Hearts and had a soporific effect on AEK. After 55 minutes, having seen his team reassert themselves, Ivanauskas tried to cause greater problems for the AEK defence by bringing on Jankauskas for the tiring Karipidis and switching to a 4-3-3.

Leaving more space in midfield was a gamble, but it quickly paid off when, in a move begun by Fyssas, the Hearts strike force found themselves with more support. The full-back channelled a ball inside to Jankauskas, whose reverse pass found Bednar. The latter had time to get his shot in just before being closed down, and when it came back off the post Mikoliunas raced in to score from five or six yards.

Just as Hearts seemed to have seized the initiative, though, they were reduced to ten men when Aguiar was dismissed 67 for a second bookable offence. The player was seen to speak angrily to the referee after a dubious free-kick, but his offence may have been to kick the ball away rather than the expression of dissent.

Hearts' response to the dismissal was to bring Wallace on for Bednar, and withdraw Jankauskas somewhat into an advanced midfield position. They were still creating chances, though, and from one of them Mikoliunas should have done better than slice wide when the ball came to him in space at the back post. Neil McCann was booked for a trip on Emerson as the match looked like petering out, but with two minutes left a cross from Stavros Tziortziopoulos was sent looping over Gordon by the head of Kapetanos.

Given fresh legs by the goal, AEK pressed on, and received their reward in stoppage time when a speculative shot from Lymperopoulos was deflected into his own net by Christophe Berra.

Hearts: Gordon, Neilson, Pressley, Berra, Fyssas, Mikoliunas, Karipidis (Jankauskas 55), Aguiar, McCann, Bednar (Wallace 68), Pospisil (Elliot 81). Subs not used: Banks, Mole, Beslija, Makela.

AEK Athens: Sorrentino, Pautasso (Tziortziopoulos 90), Dellas, Cirillo, Georgeas, Lagos (Lakis 64), Ivic, Emerson, Julio Cesar (Tozser 90), Kapetanos, Lyberopoulos. Subs not used: Chiotis, Papastathopoulos, Moras, Kyriakidis.
BBC to show second leg

BBC Scotland is to screen live the second leg of Hearts' third qualifying round Champions League match away to AEK Athens.

Last night's first leg at Murrayfield was shown live on the BBC, who also covered both of the Tynecastle club's matches in the second qualifying round against Siroki Brijeg.

The away leg in Athens takes place on 23 August, at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, kick-off 7.45pm.

Meanwhile, Hearts midfielder Lee Johnson has completed his move to Bristol City to link up with father Gary on a two-year contract.

Taken from the Scotsman

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