Exhausted, weary and with bloodshot eyes, Hearts captain Alim Ozturk 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 declared. “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 for now. “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 the we need to take care. I have confidence in my team but we have to be careful.”
They were careful, disciplined, organised and professional in the first leg. Hearts’ fitness and stamina levels were impressive given the draining conditions. Again, it is the upshot of a focused squad of players. “It’s a really young and hungry group and the way we train is very good,” explained 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 training 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.”
For someone who has played in searing conditions in Turkey, it is quite an admission for Ozturk to say the Maltese heat was the most intense he had encountered. “It was not like that in Turkey. I played a lot of evening games but they weren’t hotter than that.
“I wasn’t sick. I saw Callum [Paterson] struggling a bit. We trained a bit the day before the game and I thought it was worse. The day of the game there was a little breeze so it was fine. But it’s really hard to go there when it’s so hot.”
A clean sheet and solid European away result is exactly what the Turkish centre-back wanted. Preventing Birkirkara scoring was a key part of the plan to ensure Hearts returned to Edinburgh in a commanding position.
“The pitch was dry and so it was hard to pass the ball around,” continued Ozturk. “If you see how they play, they drop really far back. We tried to break them. We got a few chances ourselves but 0-0 isn’t a very bad score. We have to be careful at home but I think we have enough quality to do that.
“You have two games. If you play the first one away I think it’s really important you don’t concede. If you win 1-0 or 2-0 it’s the perfect score but 0-0 is a good score, too. You try to keep the clean sheet and we did that.”
Ozturk came within centimetres of being Hearts’ Mediterranean hero. An almighty effort from more than 35 yards crashed off the Birkirkara crossbar in the second half. “I was already running to celebrate,” he laughed. “It was close but it didn’t go in. It was a good hit but a little bit unlucky. A few of the boys said it was like the goal I scored against Hibs.”