Lawrence Shankland the key for Hearts in Greece as transfer rumours swirl
After the first leg, at Tynecastle last Thursday, the Scotland international, who has already bagged five goals in seven games this season, skipped past talk of Saudi Arabian interest, stating that he lived in the here and now.
That degree of focus will be pivotal, as Hearts try to shut out the noise in the Toumba Stadium and convert the chance they have to make a swift return to the Europa Conference League group stage that they graced last term.
Trailing 2-1, Shankland’s leadership and clinical presence in front of goal will be so important but having been unlucky not to muster more from the first game against their Greek opponents, the entire team will feel that there is something to aim for.
A player who thrived last season, on the domestic and foreign stage, he has picked up where he left off, scoring in each of their three European matches so far this term.
Which helps explain why there is transfer speculation. But if Hearts make it into the next stage of European competition it could make it tougher for him to agree a switch, and if he does take up a more lucrative offer, helping his team-mates secure a second successive shot at group stage football would be one heck of a parting gift.
There is no doubt in Hearts’ minds that they are capable of turning the tie around and there is enough to vindicate that view but Shankland’s strike-mate, Liam Boyce, who is looking to make up for missed opportunities after spending last season on the sidelines with an ACL injury, also knows that it will not be easy.
"From the game last week, we know how good the players are at this level,” he said as Frankie McAvoy’s squad prepared for the rematch, following a testy and testing meeting in the Scottish capital. “There's good players in this team. If we can work well together, we can take advantage in those crucial situations.
"The difference was a corner. We know it's going to be difficult, but we're going to give everything we have. I can only speak for myself, obviously. I'm looking forward to it because I missed so much of last season.
"I missed the group stages last season, and the one thing I hadn't done for Hearts was play in Europe. I'll be giving everything I can. As footballers, it's not something you think about until after your career but if we can win, it's a memory that will stay with you for the rest of your life. It's the kind of thing that the fans will remember you for.”
But the partisan crowd and humid conditions will add to the enormity of the task. “The good news for us is that the pitch is fully in the shade," said McAvoy. “We've dealt with warm conditions before so we're prepared the best we can.
"We're prepared for every eventuality. We have a group that knows what needs to be done. The tie is far from dead and finished - and sometimes underdogs can win. Our players are as motivated as ever.”
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