Chairman Romanov says Hearts can reach last 16 of Champions League

ROMAN Romanov, the Hearts chairman, believes his club can emulate Rangers and reach the last 16 of the Champions League next season.

As he savoured the feat of beating the Ibrox team to runners-up spot in the Premierleague and clinching a place in the second qualifying round of Europe's elite club tournament, Romanov set his sights on matching their historic achievement this season in becoming the first Scottish club to progress beyond the group stage.

Romanov admitted that Hearts will need to utilise more of his father Vladimir's funds in the transfer market this summer in order to make a positive impression in the Champions League, but he is already looking beyond simply making it to the lucrative group phase of the competition. "Now we've qualified for the Champions League, we need to strengthen some positions," he said. "What's good enough for the SPL won't be good enough for Europe. We will have to bring two or three players in for competition.

"To qualify for the group stage would be fantastic. We'll see what happens from then. Rangers are a good example, because no-one really counted them this season and they only got knocked out in the last 16 on away goals. Sometimes we played better than Rangers this season and it probably showed we can reach the last 16. It's a dream of course. It will take a lot of hard work and concentration, but I don't think it's impossible.

"We will be underdogs in Europe, there are a lot of bigger clubs than us playing in the Champions League, but it's good to be the underdog. I think it's easier."

Romanov is doubtless encouraged by the feats of unheralded outfits such as Slovakian champions Artmedia Bratislava and Swiss club Thun, who emerged as shock qualifiers for the group stage of this season's Champions League. A closer look at the task facing Hearts, however, provides a more sobering perspective on the likelihood of significant progress in the tournament.

Hearts will be seeded in the draw for the second qualifying round, which takes place in Nyon on 23 June, and will be regarded as favourites to win their two-legged tie on 25 July (four days before the new SPL season starts) and 1 August. Among their confirmed possible opponents are Mypa-47, the Finnish club who eliminated Dundee United from the UEFA Cup this season, Lithuanian champions Ekranas, Siroki Brijeg of Bosnia, Moldovan title holders Sheriff Tiraspol, Metalurgs of Latvia and the Icelandic champions Hafnarfjordur, who knocked Dunfermline out of the UEFA Cup last season.

The Tynecastle club will be mindful of the fate which befell Celtic in the second qualifying round of the Champions League this season when, despite being seeded, they lost 5-4 on aggregate to Artmedia and did not even have the consolation of parachuting into the UEFA Cup. That consolation prize only goes to clubs knocked out in the third qualifying round, so reaching that stage will be regarded as a minimum requirement for Hearts.

If they get there, Hearts will definitely be unseeded and will face a formidable barrier between them and the group stage. Among the confirmed seeded clubs they could face in the third qualifying round are Ajax, Inter and CSKA Moscow. Likely to join that list are Real Madrid, Dynamo Kiev, Galatasaray and either Liverpool or Manchester United. The draw for the third qualifying round takes place on 28 July with the two-legged ties scheduled for 8 and 22 August.

While Romanov places few limits on Hearts' ambitions in Europe, he is also targeting even greater success domestically. Having become the first club to split the Old Firm at the top of the league for 12 seasons, Hearts now have next week's Tennent's Scottish Cup final against Gretna to look forward to but Romanov is already looking to win the SPL next year.

"I think we can," he said. "Why not? Celtic and Rangers can also win the league next year, I think we all have a good chance. I don't even think it's going to be a three-horse race because Hibernian are not a bad team which just needs to strengthen a couple of positions up front and they might be very competitive. Hopefully we showed a good example to clubs and maybe they will look up to us and also compete with Celtic and Rangers. It's not so interesting when there's only two teams in the league."

Romanov, who suggested interim coach Valdas Ivanauskas is not out of the running to land the job on a permanent basis, believes Hearts' second-place finish justifies the series of sackings his father perpetrated throughout the tumultuous campaign.

"I think it was necessary to make the managerial changes," he said. "I would like to stress we are not illogical people who make decisions without reasons. There were reasons and we felt we couldn't react any other way."