Hearts captain Alim Ozturk was exhausted when he arrived home in Edinburgh yesterday morning. Never before had he endured heat and humidity like during the previous night’s goalless Europa League qualifying draw with Birkirkara. Now he wants rain and cold for Thursday’s return leg at Tynecastle.
Witnessing team-mates vomiting at full-time underlined to Ozturk the physical demands put upon the Hearts players in Malta. Temperatures of 27 degrees and 77 per cent humidity made for a stifling heat. The Turkish defender looked shattered at the end and, understandably, is wishing for the tables to turn next week.
Birkirkara come to Edinburgh hoping for a shock result to knock Hearts out of the Europa League second qualifying round. Their familiarity with hot and dry conditions mean Hearts could gain an advantage if the Scottish summer throws up its traditional wet weather. A downpour and chilly evening might be just the job.
“If I could choose the weather then I’d definitely go for it to be cold and raining next week,” Ozturk said. “It will be good for us as the Tynecastle pitch will be nothing like it was on Thursday night. Even with the fans behind us it will make all the difference. We know now how they play. At Tynecastle, with a wet pitch, it will be a lot easier for us. If we play the game at a high tempo then I think we can beat them.”
The victors will meet the Russian club Krasnodar in the third qualifying round. It is a reward Ozturk is keeping at the back of his mind. “Of course we look a little bit at who we will get if we were to get through this round, but it won’t matter if we don’t win next week,” he said.
“We have to win this game first and that’s what we are looking at before anything else. If we beat Birkirkara, then we will start looking ahead. It’s so important we win and we know we have to be very careful at home. If they were to score one goal then it changes everything so we need to take care. I have confidence in my team but we have to be careful.”
They were disciplined and professional in the first leg and Hearts’ fitness and stamina levels were impressive. It is the upshot of a focused squad. “It’s a really young and hungry group and the way we train is very good,” said Ozturk. “Everyone works hard on their fitness and during the summer we had a break of four weeks and we had to do our own stuff. We knew when we came back for pre-season then we would only have two weeks to prepare, so you have to do the work otherwise we will be short when we come back.”