Frustrated Hearts should be bouyed by PAOK performance despite first leg defeat at Tynecastle

Hearts' Lawrence Shankland reacts to his second goal against PAOK being chopped off by VAR. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)
Hearts' Lawrence Shankland reacts to his second goal against PAOK being chopped off by VAR. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

Against a team of million pound players, the capital side controlled most of the play in a match that grew increasingly niggly.

Hearts had taken an early lead in the first half but allowed their guests back on level terms far too soon and far too easily but, unflustered, they looked favourites to end the first leg of this Europa Conference league play-off match on top.

With the game poised at 1-1, visiting goalkeeper Dominik Kotarski’s reactionary save and the doggedness of Rafa Soares in front of him halted Lawrence’s header and then follow ups from first Kenneth Vargas and Liam Boyce, while a VAR intervention also prevented them grabbing a second goal - stepping in to chop off Shankland’s 67th minute strike.

Settling for a draw would have been tough, given the way Hearts had coped with their opponents, huckling them in possession and trying to play their own game but there was major disappointment in the latter stages as Andrija Zivkovic stepped up to lash home a strike from a central position as the match grew more fractious and Hearts failed to clear the decks following a 76th minute corner.

The final hurdle before a return to the group stage they experienced last term, they produced a mature display but it ultimately failed to reach the highs of last week’s Rosenborg triumph, leaving them with a massive task as they now have to try to overcome a 2-1 deficit away from home.

It had started in such a positive manner, though, as the players and the crowd picked up from where they had left off last week and their attacking mindset was rewarded early doors.

Vargas had missed the last round as he waited for his paperwork to be processed but made an immediate impact in this one as his pace propelled him down the right flank and into the box where he was bundled over by Stefan Schwab.

The referee was not convinced but VAR stepped in. It took an age but eventually the officials awarded the spot kick and Shankland stepped up. If the crowd were raucous before, there was bedlam as he found the bottom corner of the net.

But the fans were silenced just minutes later when Kye Rowles slid in and took out Zivkovic in the Hearts box. This time the referee required no assistance and having given away Hearts’ spot-kick Schwab took responsibility for levelling things and casually sent Zander Clark the wrong way.

The Gorgie management team had opted to leave young Aidan Denholm on the bench and slotted defender Alex Cochrane into the middle of the park instead. As well as the pace of Vargas, they also asked Barrie McKay to use his guile on the other flank and he came close on a couple of occasions to picking the lock and finding the likes of Shankland but PAOK managed to deal with the threat.

The Greeks were frustrated by Hearts’ robust refusal to give an inch. But they were also clinical when it mattered as Zivkovic buried his strike.