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

Clean bill of health a must if Hearts are to overcome huge gulf in class


A SENSE of injustice never goes amiss after a match against opponents you will meet again shortly, but Hearts' complaints about the sending-off of midfielder Bruno Aguiar on Wednesday night could not disguise two fundamental facts about their match at Murrayfield. One was that AEK Athens, who take a 2-1 lead into the second leg of the Champions League qualifier, played exceptionally well. The other is that Hearts almost to a man failed to do themselves justice.

It really was that simple. No twists of fate, no horrendous misfortune. One team was better than the other, and that team won.

The only way in which Hearts were actually unlucky was the fact they came up against a team who had prepared impeccably for the start of their competitive season. Rarely if ever can a side have kicked off a campaign with the profound self-belief that AEK displayed: in the first ten minutes alone, they could easily have scored twice.

You cannot legislate for such a performance from your opponents, and there is no point in Hearts hoping for a dip in form by the Greek side in the return leg in 12 days' time. As they become match fit, AEK will surely impress, and more of their attempts on goal will be on target than they were on Wednesday.

Hearts can draw solace, however, from the facts that they are capable of playing better - as they showed three days earlier in beating Celtic - and that they should have several key players fit again. The team that began the third qualifying round tie was six players down on last season's first-choice starting line-up.

Rudi Skacel is long gone and Andy Webster will surely follow shortly, so there is no point worrying about them. But Paul Hartley, Julien Brellier, Deividas Cesnauskis and Edgaras Jankauskas should again be available, and they will be desperate to show their team in a better light.

Jankauskas, like Cesnauskis and Brellier, was said by the club to be suffering from a virus. He managed to play part of the match, however, and fared pretty well considering also the fact that he has been out of action with a hamstring injury. The other two were unable to play at all, and both were missed: Cesnauskis because he is currently a more effective winger than either Saulius Mikoliunas or Neil McCann, Brellier because his uncompromising displays in the holding midfield role have such an inspiring effect on his colleagues. Christos Karipidis, standing in for the Frenchman, showed a few neat touches on his debut, but in a fully fit squad he will drop back into the defence - or perhaps on to the bench.

Hartley, however, is clearly the real miss. Aguiar made a decent fist of deputising for him at Tynecastle on Sunday, but on a bigger stage against more formidable opponents the Portuguese playmaker's lack of dynamism was exposed.

Valdas Ivanauskas, the Hearts coach, said earlier in the week that he hoped Hartley would be among the substitutes for tomorrow's home league game against Falkirk, and that may still be the case. As Hartley explained himself, however, a bounce game next Tuesday has also been earmarked as a significant step in the recovery which he hopes will have been completed by the time the return leg comes around.

"I'm pencilled in for the return," the Scotland international said. "I have a bounce game next Tuesday, and if that goes well than hopefully I'll be available for Athens. I'm desperate to play, but I don't want to come back too early and make it worse."

Having watched the match from Murrayfield's West Stand, Hartley was agonised to witness AEK's two late strikes, and accepted the Scottish side faced an uphill battle if they were going to win the tie and so progress to the group stages. "It will be really hard work in Greece," he acknowledged. "We need a bit of luck.

"There is a chance, but we have to accept we are going into the match as massive underdogs. We're 2-1 down with the second leg to come away from home. But you never know.

"It's going to be hot and hostile. We just have to go and give it our best shot.

"One-nil would have been a great result. The turning point of the game was the sending-off of Bruno. They are a quality team - no doubt about that. If we could just have held on it would have given us a great chance."

Or at least a better chance than the 2-1 defeat has done, because even with a 1-0 lead to take to Athens, Hearts would not have been favourites for the tie. As it is, if they care to look at the recording of the match again and assess it with a measure of objectivity, they will surely realise that, over the balance of play, that 2-1 loss flattered them.

It could have been so much worse. The gulf in class was painfully evident, and exposed, as nothing else has done, how far Hearts have to travel if they are to achieve Vladimir Romanov's grandiose vision of becoming a real power in European football.

Taken from the Scotsman

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