Hearts are convinced they can overturn the 2-1 deficit against PAOK Salonika by springing a European surprise next week in Greece. After losing the first leg of the Europa Conference League play-off at Tynecastle Park, the Edinburgh club must win in Toumba Stadium to progress to the competition’s group stage.
Lawrence Shankland’s penalty opened the scoring after five minutes, but a quick reply by Stefan Schwab from the spot levelled the tie. Andrija Zivkovic’s strike 15 minutes from the end secured a priceless advantage for PAOK ahead of the return leg in Thessaloniki.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game and a tight affair. It was disappointing that we score then they get a penalty so early after,” said Frankie McAvoy, the Hearts head coach. “Then we score with Shanks and it’s elation, then it’s a sour note when it’s chopped off [for offside]. Then they score from a corner.
“As for emotions, it’s disappointment with the result but in spells I felt our shape without the ball was really good. They try to hit on the counter and there were some pleasing moments. We know what we’ve got to do now. We’ve got to win the game and I believe that’s possible.”
Hearts seemed to lose concentration momentarily after Shankland put them in front, and PAOK punished that when the influential Zivkovic won a penalty as Kye Rowles brought him down. “In the main, we’ve dealt with emotions well. It’s about keeping your composure and staying switched on at every opportunity,” said McAvoy. “The goals are disappointing but we knew they are a good team. We just need to make sure we’re prepared as best we can.”
Hearts created several opportunities during the 90 minutes without managing to convert from open play. The game’s first two goals came from penalties, whilst the third followed a corner. PAOK converted twice when they needed to on the night and are now favourites to progress to the group stage.
“I thought when we got into good areas we caused problems,” said McAvoy. “In the first half, their keeper made a fantastic save from Shanks and Boycey so we know we’re creating chances. Our wide players could cause them issues. We've got a good squad.”
Hearts travel to face Dundee at Dens Park in the Premiership on Sunday before flying out to Thessaloniki next week. “We’ll deal with Dundee on Sunday as best we can then focus on Greece. We've come a long way since we’ve come in and the players have great belief in themselves. That's important going forward and we’ll have that at the forefront of our minds.”
Winger Barrie McKay remains a doubt for the next two games after sustaining a knee injury against PAOK. He was substituted during the second half and will now be assessed by medical staff at Riccarton. “He felt something in his knee,” confirmed McAvoy. “The guys have to assess it to find how bad it is but it’s too early at the moment.”