Hearts had taken hope from the first leg of this Europa Conference League play-off tie following a narrow 2-1 defeat at Tynecastle against PAOK and while everyone travelling to Thessaloniki understood the magnitude of the task, against a team with a massive financial advantage, they harboured hopes that their name could be the one included in Friday’s draw for the group stage. But, as had been the case at Tynecastle last week, a slice of slapdash, followed by a moment of brilliance left them with too much to do as the Greek rivals raced to a 2-0 lead and add in more sloppy defending and a dose of good fortune for the Greeks following the break and the Gorgie club were denied further European involvement, losing 4-0 on the night and 6-1 on aggregate.
Toby Sibbick was the only alteration from the Hearts side that started the tie in the Scottish capital a week earlier, with the injured Barrie McKay the player making way. That extra physicality and defensive nous was considered a positive as they renewed rivalries with opponents who had grown increasingly-narky the last time they faced up, and posed a bigger threat in the much larger pitch, and the heat, and the humidity of the Toumba Stadium.
PAOK shuffled their side as well and, on a night where the referee was willing to accede to their hustling, they proved themselves more clinical. There was quality in their play, with the delightful hooked finish from Brandon in the 23rd minute for PAOK’s second goal of the night, but the truth is that Hearts contributed to each of the home side’s goals. In that one, the cross in from Giannis Konstantelias should have been more adequately dealt with by Nathaniel Atkinson but he was out muscled by Stefan Schwab, who headed back across goal. And, while Brandon’s goal was special, he was able to execute it far too comfortably by Kye Rowles.
Despite performing so well in their last two European outings, Hearts’ defending was lamentable in Greece. The opener set the tone. It came from a free-kick after Atkinson clumsily tried and failed to deal with Brandon and while the set piece should have been ruled offside, Taison’s effort skited through Lawrence Shankland’s legs, blindsiding Zander Clark and finding the far corner of the net. After a week of disappointments, with defeats to Dundee as well as PAOK, Hearts fans will hope that was not their star striker’s curtain call in maroon as Southampton continue to circle as the transfer window nears its end.
Two up within 23 minutes and it was too much to ask for a Hearts comeback. Last week PAOK had been quick to respond to the loss of a goal but the Tynecastle side were not gifted the same kind of opportunity by their hosts, Instead, they continued to showcase their own inadequacies. The third goal came after the break and while Konstantelias had a decent break of the ball after it was whipped into him, the space given to the home side to pick him out will be galling for the Hearts management and that was not the end of the lamentable defending, as Taison added his second with 19 minutes remaining.