PAOK Salonika arrived at Tynecastle Park on Wednesday without four players for the Europa Conference League play-off with Hearts. The Greek club are missing some established names as they look to secure a positive first-leg result ahead of next week’s return match in Thessaloniki.
Around 300 travelling fans are expected to attend the match in Scotland but PAOK are without Russian international midfielder Magomed Ozdoyev, who was refused a visa to enter the UK. Portuguese midfielder Filipe Soares is injured along with Tanzanian forward Mbwana Samatta, whilst Ghanaian defender Baba Rahman is suspended for the first leg.
Coach Răzvan Lucescu complained about UK visa laws after being denied the services of the influential Ozdoyev. “In a personal way, I feel bad and a sense of huge injustice not to have a player here because of a visa. I don’t understand the people who decide this,” he said.
“I don’t want to enter too much on this subject, I prefer to focus on the game. We have managed previous games in difficult situations, we must do this again tomorrow and again next week.
“Filipe Soares is not here. Samatta got injured in last game, we hope to have him for the next game. We know well our team has to find ways of giving everything and fighting for ways of victory. We must be ready to give everything, I believe we have this mentality at this moment.”
The PAOK defender William Troost-Ekong explained why Ozdoyev’s absence will be felt. “We miss Magomed. I think he has come into the group very well and it is always a very line difficult to discuss football and politics,” he said.
“Football is a great way to bring people together and it could have been a good way for us to show that here in Scotland. These are things that are out of our hands and we have to adapt as a team. Of course I am sad, we will miss him, but we will have him back next Thursday.”
Lucescu and his staff have studied Hearts and have the help of team director Christos Karipidis, who spent three years at Tynecastle between 2006 and 2009. PAOK are preparing for a physical encounter in Gorgie and expect a lot of individual battles on the pitch. “I will not speak about Hearts players individually,” said the coach. “It is a team with a strong mentality of working, totally different to what we have faced up to now.
“It is a team that plays a more direct game with second balls and contacts. It will be a game in which we must be ready to react and be focused. But we must also cause them big problems and keep them under pressure and make them focus on their defence.”
Saudi Arabain club Al Khaleej have opened negotiations to sign PAOK’s German winger Khaled Narey for a multi-million-pound fee. “I don’t want to think about this. My focus is on getting my players ready for this game,” remarked Lucescu. “These are stories that are very difficult to stop. This is the period of August when such episodes happen. We need a group that is ready to fight tomorrow.”