Hearts were defeated 2-1 by PAOK in the first leg of their UEFA Europa Conference League play-off at Tynecastle.
There were four changes from the side that defeated Partick Thistle in the Viaplay Cup at the weekend. Stephen Kingsley, Nathaniel Atkinson, Cammy Devlin and Liam Boyce replaced Odel Offiah, Toby Sibbick, Calem Nieuwenhof and Alex Lowry.
As is often the case at Tynecastle on a European night, it was a frantic start. Kenneth Vargas has already made a good run down the right moments earlier and the visitors didn’t learn their lesson as on his second venture down the channel, he was brought down by PAOK skipper Stefan Schwab.
Lawrence Shankland stepped up, and you know the rest. Dominik Kotarski guessed right, but once again, the penalty was inch-perfect from the Hearts skipper, who’s strike nestled in the bottom corner as the roof came off an already bouncing Tynecastle.
Before the visitors had to show what, they were made of following that early goal, they were given the perfect chance to respond instantly. Andrija Živković was brought down by Kye Rowles and up stepped Schwab to redeem himself, sending Zander Clark the wrong way to restore parity.
Somehow, Kotarski managed to keep the scores level on the half hour mark. Kingsley crossed for Shankland who connected well with his head, but it was a magnificent one-hand save from the stopper, who reacted quickly to spread himself and deny Boyce’s volley on the rebound.
Both sides were relatively well-organised in their 4-2-3-1 formations and as such, largely cancelled each other out, meaning there weren’t many clear-cut chances in the opening 45 minutes.
Cammy Devlin was being his usual tenacious self in the Hearts midfield and was having his own person battle with PAOK striker, Brandon.
Taison had the last chance of the half. Standing over a free kick, 20-yards from goal, he opted for the low route, but his strike was blocked by a wall of maroon jersey’s.
Half time: Hearts 1-1 PAOK
Into the second half and the game continued in a fairly similar pattern. The visitors were happy to try and take the sting out the occasion, but Hearts continued to press and play off the energy of the crowd.
PAOK claimed for a third penalty of the evening, ten minutes into the second half for another foul in the box and when claims went unanswered, the ball dropped to Taison, who forced a smart stop from Zander Clark with his feet at the near post.
The men in maroon thought they had regained the lead on 67 minutes. Boyce teed up Shankland on the left-hand side of the box and he curled the ball perfectly into the top corner.
The goal looked to have a suspicion of offside and after a VAR review the goal was ruled out.
Hearts were dealt a huge sucker punch 15 minutes from time. A short corner on the right gave the visitors a three-on-two and the ball was worked out to Zivkovic. He unleashed a vicious strike that swerved away from Clark and into the bottom corner.
The Jambos would’ve felt aggrieved to have been behind considering the effort they put into the game, but despite their best efforts, they couldn’t find an equaliser and head to Thessaloniki next Thursday trailing by a single goal.
Hearts: Clark, Kent, Kingsley, Shankland ©, Boyce (Tagawa, 86), Atkinson (Offiah, 89), Devlin, Rowles, McKay (Lowry, 64), Cochrane (Sibbick, 86), Vargas (Oda, 89)
Subs: McGovern, Stone, Oda, Halliday, Forrest, Sibbick, Denholm, Tait, Offiah, Tagawa, Lowry, Wilson
PAOK: Kotarski, Koulierakis, Tsingaras, Konstantelias, Taison, A.Živković, Ekong, Kędziora, Schwab ©, Soares, Brandon
Subs: Ž.Živković, Talichmanidis, Näsberg, Michailidis, Murg, Lyratzis, Vieirinha, Sastre, Vrakas, Giaxis, Narey, Tzimas