Athens run rings around Hearts
ROB ROBERTSON at Murrayfield August 10 2006
Hearts 1 - 2 AEK Scorers: Hearts – Mikoliunas (62); AEK – Kapetanos (89), Berra (90+3 og)
The chances of Hearts making the Champions League group stages are all but over after two late goals from AEK Athens gave them a deserved first-leg victory.
Saulius Mikoliunas had given Hearts the lead with a tap-in on the hour mark after Roman Bednar had hit the inside of the post.
But the goal came against the run of play and the Greek scored twice within the last three minutes to win. They drew level with a Pantelis Kapetanos header with two minutes left then Christophe Berra deflected a shot from man of the match Nikolas Liberopoulos into his own net.
Bruno Aguiar, of whom so much was expected, did his team-mates no favours after being sent-off after picking up two yellow cards with 25 minutes left. The first booking for a bad tackle was fair but the second for throwing the ball away, was harsh.
The Greeks might have settled for a draw, but a nervous Hearts looked there for the taking. It was AEK's first competitive match as their season does not start until next week, but they looked sharp and very fit and are likely to be even better in the return leg.
Hearts lost the game in midfield where Valdas Ivanauskas' got his tactics wrong. His experiment to give Christos Karipidis, signed as a centre-half, his debut in a holding role backfired. It is vital that they get the injured Paul Hartley fit in time for the return leg as he is the only man who can provide the necessary spark.
The Athens players were so confident they adopted a policy of long-range shooting, which nearly paid off.
Even Emerson, the Brazilian who was a monumental flop at Rangers, looked polished as he received too much time on the ball in the middle of the park Liberopoulos playing off the front two, was superb. He pulled the Hearts defence all over the place and deserved to be involved in the winner.
Such was the panic in the Hearts defence that Steven Pressley and Michal Pospisil headed on to the bar and post respectively from AEK corners.
As the game progressed Neil McCann, became so exasperated at the state of the midfield that he gestured to Ivanauskas to do something about it.
Karipidis was finally withdrawn in the second half and replaced by striker Edgaras Jankauskas who was told to play in the hole behind the front two. He made little difference, as the Greek outfit remained far superior.
When Mikoliunas scored there was a mixture of relief and amazement among the Hearts supporters. After the goal the pace of the game slowed, partly because Aguiar was sent off shortly afterwards and Hearts were on the back foot. Pressley remained a rock in defence but even his efforts failed to stop the inevitable.
Mikoliunas, who had had a mediocre game despite his goal, should have scored a second but completely missed his kick with 20 minutes left. It might have killed the game.
It proved to be a vital miss as AEK, sensing blood, laid siege to the Hearts goal before scoring their two late goals. Hearts looked ill at ease with the system. They lacked width in the middle of the park and the usual fluency was missing.
Much will now rest on Ivanauskas getting his team selection right for the second leg and the players upping their performance level. It will be a time for players like Pressley to lead from the front and it will be a case of concentration and passion in Athens.
Hearts will not be able to match the Greek outfit for skill and a fit Hartley could be the difference between success and failure - though in truth, even he is unlikely to turn it around.
Hearts (4-4-2) Gordon; Neilson, Pressley, Berra, Fyssas; Mikoliunas, Aguiar, Karipidis, McCann; Pospisil Subs: Banks, Jankauskas, Beslija, Makela, Elliot, Wallace, Mole
AEK (4-4-2) Sorrentino; Pautasso, Cirillo, Dellas, Georgeas; Lagos, Emerson, Ivic, Cesar; Kapetanos, Lymperopoulos Subs: Chiotis, Papastahopoulos, Tziortziopoulos, Moras, Kyriakidis, Lakis, Tozser
Referee Nicolai Vollquartz (Denmark)
Taken from the Herald