Deafening roars of approval pierced the stifling Thessaloniki air last night as Hearts’ European campaign burned out against PAOK. Temperatures touching 30 degrees inside Toumba Stadium enhanced a hostile and volatile atmosphere which ultimately proved overwhelming for the Edinburgh side.
They lost 4-0 on the night and exited the Europa Conference League play-off on a 6-1 aggregate scoreline. PAOK won the first leg 2-1 at Tynecastle Park last week and exploited their commanding position to satisfy a demanding and raucous home crowd. They now progress to the tournament’s group stage, where no team will relish a trip to this venomous ground on the banks of the Thermaic Gulf.
Brazilian winger Taison was instrumental in this comfortable victory with two goals. His first on 14 minutes was followed up by Spanish striker Brandon Thomas nine minutes later. The impressive 20-year-old Ioannis Konstantelias added the third on 58 minutes before Taison claimed his double on 71. Even at 35, he remains a quick, creative and deadly threat on PAOK’s left flank.
Thessaloniki’s waterfront statue of the ancient Greek King Alexander The Great is a tourist highlight, but it is fair to say Toumba is a venue also frozen in time. Its traditional bowl shape with concrete terracings house a fanatical PAOK support base who don’t take too kindly to opponents from anywhere. Odd seats are missing in the away end, presumably punched or kicked off in frustration at on-field events.
It’s all part of the intended intimidation, of course, which leaves many a visiting team harassed in this corner of Europe. Hearts discovered just how that feels. The PAOK ultras filtered into the Curva Nord 90 minutes before kick-off and before long were bouncing around in large, shirtless groups. The decibel level rose for kick-off and again after 12 minutes when the Greek right-back Vieirinha crashed a left-footed 22-yard shot off Zander Clark’s crossbar.
Then came the early opening goal Hearts desperately wanted to avoid conceding. After Nathaniel Atkinson fouled Brandon in the right-back area, Taison curled a low shot beyond the Hearts defensive wall, captain Lawrence Shankland and goalkeeper Clark into the bottom corner of the net. Clark appealed that his view was impeded by Konstantelias and, after an offside VAR check, the goal was confirmed. Konstantelias was in an offside position but debate surrounded whether he was in Clark’s eyeline and how much attempt he made to play the ball to thereby become ‘active’.
An already-difficult task became near-impossible when PAOK struck again nine minutes later. Konstantelias collected possession on the right after a precise passing move from inside the home half. He made space to cross, Stefan Schwab headed across the face of goal, and Brandon hooked a clever finish over his shoulder past Clark despite the close attentions of marker Kye Rowles.
Hearts did get forward at times with some decent combination play through Liam Boyce and Lawrence Shankland, however their frustrations were growing at 2-0 down. Spanish referee Guillermo Cuadra was quick to dish out cautions for any misdemeanour, as Toby Sibbick, Shankland and Cammy Devlin discovered. Shankland in particular was dealing with the gamesmanship of PAOK centre-back Konstantinos Koulierakis, a player wily beyond his years at the age of just 19. It is little wonder AC Milan want him to reinforce their defence.
Sitting 4-1 behind on aggregate at half-time, Hearts knew this tie was over. Around 600 travelling supporters were housed in the south-west corner of Toumba and must have endured a long evening. Not many would have expected their team to go through before kick-off. It was difficult for anyone in maroon to make a serious impact with the heat sapping so much energy. Even if Hearts did give their fans something to shout about, it’s likely they would still have been drowned out by the locals.
Alex Cochrane shot over the PAOK crossbar early in the second half following carefully-constructed build-up involving Shankland, Boyce and Kenneth Vargas. Shankland then headed Cochrane’s free-kick from the right side wide of target. Those fleetings moments of hope evaporated when the hosts scored a third before the hour mark. Andrija Zivkovic’s low ball into the Hearts penalty area found Konstantelias with enough space to miss-hit his shot and still have time to compose himself and tap the second attempt past Clark from six yards.
Hearts replaced Boyce with Kyosuke Tagawa and switched to a three-man defence for the remainder of the game. They were now firmly in damage-limitation territory in the knowledge that this European sojourn would be their last of the current season. Their Conference League campaign had yet to begin this time last year, however they were now staring at an earlier exit than Tynecastle officials hoped for.
Taison claimed his second goal of the evening on 70 minutes. Brandon’s attacking run was halted by Atkinson’s tackle, the Australian inadvertently prodding the ball through to the Brazilian who then stroked it beneath Clark to make it 4-0. By then, Hearts had lost Stephen Kingsley after an awkward landing after an aerial challenge. It was a tough ending to a tough night in the Greek heat – one which underlined the unforgiving nature of European qualifying ties for anyone not already aware.
PAOK (4-2-3-1): Kotarski; Vieirinha (Kedziora 64), Troost-Ekong, Koulierakis, Rahman; Tsingaras, Schwab; Zivkovic (Vrakas 82), Konstantelias, Taison (Murg 75); Brandon (Tzimas 75).
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Clark; Atkinson (Offiah 82), Kent, Rowles, Kingsley (Denholm 66); Sibbick, Devlin (Halliday 82); Vargas, Boyce (Tagawa 59), Cochrane; Shankland (Lowry 66).
Referee: Guillermo Cuadra (Spain).