The PAOK Salonika head coach Răzvan Lucescu complained of being too cold in Scotland and joked ahead of his team’s meeting with Hearts that he wanted to go back to Thessaloniki. After an exhausting Europa Conference League play-off first leg at a hostile Tynecastle Park, he will certainly have warmed up.
There was no Greek gluttony in Gorgie but PAOK secured a potentially significant 2-1 lead ahead of next Thursday’s return match. Hearts’ performance contained many positives on a night when they more than matched Greek Super League opponents, but they needed a second goal when on top for long spells of the second half. Lawrence Shankland’s early penalty was quickly cancelled out by Stefan Schwab’s spot-kick, and Andrija Zivkovic’s goal 15 minutes from full-time proved to be the winner on the night.
The scoreline was tough on the hosts, whose effort and endeavour could not be faulted. Shankland saw a second-half strike disallowed for offside prior to PAOK’s second goal as if to add to the locals’ frustration. Lucescu’s team got a real run for their money in Edinburgh and showed their clinical side to bury two of the few scoring chances they created during the game. They are now favourites to go through next week, although Hearts will justifiably believe they can cause an upset in Thessaloniki.
Almost 400 Greek fans shuffled into Tynecastle’s Roseburn Stand hoping to see their side seize a first-leg advantage in this tie. The return match takes place next Thursday, August 31, in PAOK’s hostile Toumba Stadium. Hearts now know they need to withstand the intimidation and garner a result there to reach the Conference League group stage.
The hosts’ starting line-up included a few surprises with defender Alex Cochrane deployed alongside Cammy Devlin in central midfield at the expense of the impressive teenager Aidan Denholm. PAOK were angry that the UK Home Office refused their influential Russian midfielder Magomed Ozdoyev a visa to enter Scotland. However, they still fielded a strong and experienced team.
They were nonetheless rocked by the opening moments. Hearts won a penalty inside five minutes through Kenneth Vargas – one of the surprising starters. He dispossessed the Brazilian winger Taison near the halfway line and sprinted forward down the right flank. He was tripped by the visiting midfielder Schwab upon entering the penalty area and, following a long VAR review, the Latvian referee Andris Treimanis pointed to the spot. Shankland’s conversion was unequivocal.
Just when the hosts needed composure and consolidation, they conceded at the other end within two minutes. Again, the goal came via the penalty spot. PAOK’s dangerous Serbian Zivkovic surged into the Hearts penalty area and was brought down by Kye Rowles. No VAR required this time and Schwab confidently stroked the ball low beyond Zander Clark from the spot to level the scoreline at 1-1.
An open affair played at high tempo was evolving in front of the BBC Scotland cameras. Both teams used quick and instinctive combination play in the final third to probe the opposition. Hearts came tantalisingly close to retaking the lead just after the half-hour mark. Shankland’s header was first beaten away by a one-handed save from the visiting goalkeeper Dominik Kotarski, and the striker’s follow-up attempt was deflected into Liam Boyce’s path. The Northern Irishman dispatched a first-time shot but the outstretched leg of PAOK defender Rafa Soares prevented a certain goal.
Aerial balls forward also brought some success for those in maroon and, as the first half progressed, PAOK found themselves retreating more often than they wanted. Deliveries in behind left their back line looking disjointed at times, although defenders had sufficient pace to recover against Shankland and Boyce.
It had been a determined first-half Hearts display laced with some moments of genuine quality. PAOK were not getting their own way in Edinburgh and seemed slightly rattled as a result. They appealed en masse for a red card for Shankland five minutes into the second period after the Hearts captain caught defender Konstantinos Koulierakis with a flailing arm. Referee Treimanis issued a yellow as both technical areas engaged in some verbals.
The Greeks continued attacking down their left side. Taison was working in tandem with the highly-rated Ioannis Konstantelias to ensure a demanding night for the Hearts right-back Nathaniel Atkinson. One of Taison’s runs down that flank ended with the Brazilian driving a shot against Clark’s legs. The atmosphere inside Tynecastle continued bubbling, the crowd poised awaiting a moment to erupt. Both teams knew this tie was finely-balanced and any mistake would likely be punished.
The hosts lost winger Barrie McKay to injury on 64 minutes as the on-loan Rangers midfielder Alex Lowry entered the fray. Moments later, a sumptuous Shankland finish hit the top corner before being disallowed for offside. Vargas then lashed a volley wide. Hearts by now were in the ascendancy as the game entered its final 20 minutes. Yet they could not capitalise on the supremacy and suffered as a result.
PAOK moved 2-1 ahead on 75 minutes when Zivkovic collected a corner and rattled a powerful left-footed strike low into the bottom corner of the net from outside the area. Hearts players had heads in hands in the aftermath, perhaps due to the amount of space given to one of the opposition’s key players.
The Edinburgh club are now firmly up against it in order to progress. They sit merely one goal behind heading out to Thessaloniki, but it will take one of the most momentous results in their history to overturn the deficit and reach the lucrative Conference League groups.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Clark; Atkinson (Offiah 89), Kent, Rowles, Kingsley; Devlin, Cochrane (Sibbick 87); Vargas (Oda 89), Boyce (Tagawa 87), McKay; Shankland.
PAOK (4-2-3-1): Kotarski; Kedziora, Ekong, Koulierakis, R Soares; Schwab, Tsingaras; Zivkovic, Konstantelias (Murg 70), Taison (Narey 79); Brandon (Tzimas 88).
Referee: Andris Treimanis (Latvia)