AGAINST the stunning backdrop of Braga’s Municipal Stadium, Hearts carved out a piece of history in Portugal by becoming the first Scottish club to reach the group phase of the UEFA Cup.
The hero was Mark de Vries, who delivered a towering performance and scored the double which catapulted the Edinburgh side into the cash-rich stages of the revamped competition.
Although they lost an early goal to Joao Tomas, a strike in each half from De Vries turned the first-round second-leg tie on its head and secured Hearts a draw on the night and a 5-3 triumph on aggregate. They lost a late equaliser when Jaime bustled in a goal from a corner, but Hearts were worthy victors over two legs.
It was undoubtedly Craig Levein’s finest hour as Hearts head coach as he once again proved himself an astute tactician. The inclusion of De Vries was a major surprise, but a welcome one nonetheless for the 1,500 Hearts fans in Portugal. Twenty-four hours earlier Levein had all but ruled him out, but a pain-killing injection in his injured foot allowed the big striker to start the match. He was deployed as Hearts’ lone attacker as Levein opted to beef up the midfield with Neil MacFarlane, who had impressed as a substitute in the first leg at Murrayfield.
The visiting coach clearly thought a numerical advantage in the middle of the park was the key to winning the tie, but his plans suffered a real blow in the 12th minute when Braga scored the early goal.
Paulo Sergio delivered a cross from the right, the flick on by Wender seemed to cause confusion between Robbie Neilson and Craig Gordon. Both hesitated as Tomas reacted quickest to clip the ball over the Hearts goalkeeper from a narrow angle.
With their aggregate lead halved, Hearts faced a major test of their resolve. But like they have done so many times before under Levein, they showed great mental fortitude and restored their two-goal advantage. De Vries had been proving himself to be a real handful for the Braga defenders and when their captain, Paulo Jorge, got into a terrible fankle in his own box in the 28th minute it was the big striker who punished him.
He muscled past Jorge, nicked the ball round Paulo Santos, the Braga goalkeeper, and touched it into the empty net.
It was enough to bring an already pulsating match to the boil and as the travelling supporters celebrated wildly, tempers flared on the pitch. Half-a-dozen players got needlessly involved in a pushing match and a linesman had to step in to help the referee restore order. Jamie McAllister, who had already been booked, was spoken to and four others were booked in the first 45 minutes.
The noisy home support were in a ferment about some of Stredak’s decisions, most notably when he ignored claims for a penalty ten minutes before half-time when the ball appeared to strike Stamp on the arm. The pressure on Gordon’s goal continued and when Jaime bent a sumptuous free-kick around the Hearts wall the young keeper was scrambling desperately to his left as the ball went narrowly past the post. It wasn’t all one-way, however, and Paul Hartley should have done better with a shot from the edge of the box which he struck high over the bar.
De Vries’ powers of recovery were proving remarkable and he put Hearts ahead on the night with the second half just three minutes old. Picking the ball up in midfield, he strode past a couple of half-hearted challenges before punching a low left-footed shot goalwards from the edge of the box. En route to the net, the ball seemed to take a deflection off Nem which wrong-footed Santos completely.
The goal was as impressive as it was significant because it meant Braga had to score four more to win the tie. The enormity of the task facing the hosts seemed to sink in quickly and their attacks began to lack the conviction of the first half as Hearts defended stoutly and MacFarlane, Hartley and Patrick Kisnorbo ran their socks off in midfield.
SC Braga: Paulo Santos, Paulo Jorge, Nem, Jorge Luiz, Paulo Sergio, Joao Tomas, Jaime, Kenedy, (Castanheira 44) Wender (Cesinha 68), Abel (Baha 60), Vandinho. Subs not used: Marco, Barroso, Nunes, Candido Costa.
Hearts: Gordon; Neilson, Pressley, Webster, Maybury; Stamp (Pereira 84), Kisnorbo, MacFarlane, Hartley, McAllister; De Vries (McKenna 77). Subs not used: Moilanen, Berra, Stewart, Hamill, Wyness.
Referee: A Stredak (Slvk).