|Hearts on Mark as Jambos triumph!|
Live from Hearts News at the Municipal Stadium.
Hearts became the first-ever British club to reach the UEFA Cup group stages, after securing victory tonight, against Sporting Braga, with help from Mark De Vries as he grabbed a couple of goals to help the Jambos to a score-draw in Portugal. The Jambos are now assured of around £2m, with four matches still to come before Christmas.
The roasting hot sun that had blazed all day was only just starting to subside as we approached getting under way. The pitch was in perfect in condition and all in shadow.
There have been well publicised problems with the atmosphere of the stadium and this was summed up a little by the stadium announcer trying to engage the crowd in a vaguely annoying song. It was certainly something out of the ordinary and maybe Scott Wilson should take note.
Other than that, the set-up was phenomenally impressive. The Estadio Municipal was hardly full, but it was rocking. The hosts had to apply pressure from the start, and they followed this line of attack. Less than two minutes had passed when Wender was on the verge of being played through. His slip was timely from a Hearts perspective, with Neilson quickly in to clear.
Braga had a chance again after five minutes when Jaime's fre-kick almost caught out Craig Gordon. The young keeper dived well to turn the ball behind. From the resulting corner, Wender turned and shot smartly, his drive missing the crossbar by inches.
Hearts had not begun at the high tempo so evident at Murrayfield, and it took until the tenth minute for them to register a shot at goal, Phil Stamp's volley directed straight at Santos.
Then disaster struck. Wender's cross was poorly cleared by Webster, but there still appeared to be no danger on the left-hand side of the penalty area. Then a misunderstanding between Neilson and Gordon allowed Joao Tomas to nip in and flick the ball into the unguarded net. The place went wild, and that included the Hearts bench, who were furious at the lapse in concentration.
Moments later, a misplaced pass from MacFarlane almost played in Braga, again. Only admirable work from Kisnorbo and a poor final shot prevented a second goal.
But then, out of quite literally nothing, Hearts equalised! A long ball from Gordon appeared to herald no danger, but a shockingly bad header from Paolo Jorge let in De Vries, who beat Santos to the punch, by a matter of inches. The stunned and delighted Dutchman then guided the ball into the net by just letting it run.
The roaring atmosphere of a few seconds previously was replaced by one of despair. The home team had been clearly caught out and the air of confidence was visibly shattered. The estimated two-thousand strong Jambo contingent roared into life and it was a sight to behold.
After some moments, the home fans began to find their voices, and their favourites started to respond. Wender came close with a fine free-kick, that for a second appeared to be in, and then with a left-foot volley that Gordon held comfortably.
Half-time sounded, and as much as Hearts could be please with the scoreline, there was still much to do. There followed some even more bizarre entertainment at half-time, courtesy of a Portuguese Fado band. Needless to say, nobody was particularly enthused by it.
The second period sounded and almost immediately Hearts took the lead. A skirmish on the far side of the pitch resulted in De Vries emerging with the ball and going on one of his trademark mazy runs. Just when he appeared to have lost possession, he fired in a shot that took an admittedly cruel deflection past Santos, who was stranded.
As Hearts News did a wee jig of delight in the press box, we could see down to the dug-out where Craig Levein was also inventing his own dance steps. It was magical.
The Portuguese side seemed at a loss as to what to do. They adopted a frightening speed of football for a while, but then tiredness took over. Hearts were dictating the play, although there was a lapse of concentration on fifty-four minutes when three Braga players were left un-marked at the back post. None managed a proper connection and the ball sailed harmlessly over.
Joao Tomas nearly added to his tally when a fine run from Wender brought an equally good cross. Smart defender from Webster put him off as he prepared to shoot. But after this, Braga lost hearts, if you will excuse the pun. The crowd had turned on them shortly after De Vries' second, and only a fiercely loyal section of the crowd remained on their feet.
And they had something to shout about after 76 minutes when Jaime rose unchallenged from a corner to head them level. Moments later, De Vries was substituted for McKenna, leaving the field to a heroes ovation form the Jam Tarts. The same cannot be said for the home support, many of whom shouted racist chants and made monkey noises. Someone should have told them that several members of their own side share the same skin colour as the Hearts' number nine.
Craig Levein had given instructions for his boys to wind the game down, introducing Pereira for the industrious Phil Stamp. This was at the time when many of the Bragistas started to leave.
They had the ball in the net on eighty0eight minutes but Tomas was well off-side, summing up their frustrating night.
There was an incredibly bad attempt at winning a penalty from Tomas as we entered the three-minutes of stoppage time. The superb referee, missed the Mr Stredak, who rivalled by Mr Genov from the first leg for ability, waved play on.
And that was it! If we were to be ultra critical, it was a tad disappointing to only draw, after having made such an impact at the start of the second half. Frankly, who cares? The stadium announcer was not done though, as he then broadcast the most needless public message there has ever been- "would the Hearts fans stay behind for five minutes at the end of the game?" You bet they did!
So, whilst we are overseas, the Hibs will again be in Portobelly. Does it get any sweeter? Well, it does actually. Hearts News spied Jesualdo Ferreira at the very end, standing motionless on the pitch, hands on hips. After his comments that he was sure the first-leg was a one-off, and that the better side would win overall, he'll have been glad to have been proved right. Shame it was not his own, though.
SC Braga: Santos; Jorge, Nem, Luiz, Sergio, Tomas, Jaime, Kenedy, Wender, Abel, Vandinho. Subs: Marco, Barroso, Castanheira, Baha, Nunes, Cesinha, Costa.
Hearts: Gordon; Neilson, Pressley, Webster, Maybury; Stamp, Kisnorbo, Hartley, MacFarlane, McAllister; De Vries. Subs: Molianen, McKenna, Wyness, Pereira, Hamill, Berra, Stewart.
Referee: Anton Stredak (Slovakia)
Top Man: Craig Levein - he got it right!