Alim Ozturk: Hearts must not fall at the first hurdle
Alim Ozturk admits Hearts are desperate to avoid a European exit at the first hurdle tonight.
The Tynecastle captain said his team-mates want to repay their fans by progressing past FC Infonet and into the Europa League second qualifying round.
The Edinburgh club are here in Estonia leading 2-1 from last week’s first leg. Ozturk stressed that his team can’t afford to think of their Europa League campaign ending at the first qualifying round.
Hearts have spent two years rebuilding having being relegated to the Championship in 2014 – a result of entering administration the year before. The quest to qualify for Europe was successful last season and Ozturk is eager that all the good work should not be undone this evening. Whoever prevails face a second qualifying round against Birkirkara of Malta. Ozturk isn’t looking that far ahead yet. He is simply focused on helping Hearts past Infonet.
“It’s crazy that two years ago, when I came to Hearts, we were playing in the Championship,” recalled the Turkish defender. “To lead the team in Europe as captain is a really big thing. It’s really important we don’t leave this tournament early. We will do everything to go through.
“You are always dreaming but I didn’t think our progress would happen so fast. I think the club is going really well with what we have done in the last two years. We want to give the fans something back for the backing they gave us through the Foundation [of Hearts]. What they are doing is a good example for other clubs. It was a special feeling playing at home in Europe and this is another moment. It’s my first away game as captain and I’m looking forward to it. This is an honour for me. From the moment I heard I was captain of the club, to lead the team to Europe is a different thing. I’m really proud of that.
“We have to finish it. We have a 2-1 lead so we have to secure the score. We have enough quality to do that. It’s hard to have a good performance every game. The first game was not our best but the 2-1 lead is important. It’s a week later and we are more prepared.”
Aleksandr Pushtov, the Infonet coach, believes the Estonians can spring a surprise thanks to Jevgeni Harin’s away goal at Tynecastle. He has prepared his players to handle an imposing visiting forward line of Conor Sammon and Juanma Delgado.
“The goal gives us a good chance for this game. We only lost by one goal so we are giving our best to win,” he said. “We have watched the whole Hearts team. Maybe we should concentrate on the attacking positions because we have to deal with two big guys. Your guys are big, so we have to deal with them. We have to pay attention to the central players as well.
“I don’t think we are the favourites. The goal from the first leg gives us a certain advantage but we understand Hearts are still the favourites. The match will not show Estonian football is better than Scottish football. If we go through, it will just tell us we are better. The favourites aren’t always the winners in football.”
Meanwhile, Jordan McGhee’s loan move from Hearts to Middlesbrough has been completed. The defender will spend the next season on loan at the Riverside Stadium.
The Barclays Premier League club have secured first option to sign McGhee next summer. A fee has already been agreed should they decide to invoke the option since McGhee’s Hearts contract will expire next June.