Hearts v PAOK: Competent Greek side need not strike fear into hosts

Europa Conference League play-off: Heart of Midlothian v PAOK Salonika

Venue: Tynecastle Park, Edinburgh Date: Thursday, 24 August Kick-off: 19:45 BST

Coverage: Watch on BBC Scotland & BBC iPlayer, listen on BBC Radio Scotland Extra/DAB/810MW, live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app

By all accounts, the atmosphere inside Tynecastle Park last Thursday when Cam Devlin smashed a deflected drive past Andre Hansen to put Hearts into the Europa Conference League play-off was on a par with anything that had been experienced inside the famous old ground in many a year.

Just the type of occasion the Hearts supporters would like to replicate a few more times this season, starting with the visit of PAOK, as they look to secure group-stage football for the second successive season.

In many ways, doing so would feel that much sweeter this time around, having done it the hard way, as opposed to dropping into the competition after losing the Europa League play-off against FC Zurich 12 months ago.

And make no mistake, it will be the hard way. Overcoming Rosenborg was difficult enough, particularly after the adversity of Isak Thorvaldsson's fifth-minute opener, which gave the Norwegians a two-goal cushion in Edinburgh.

But for the first time in 30 years, Hearts picked themselves up off the canvas and, thanks to goals from their inspirational captain Lawrence Shankland and the much less likely source of Devlin, not once but twice, they secured this play-off tie, which has them on the brink of European riches, glamour and prestige once again.

With each passing game, Hearts' evolving squad looks closer to a cohesive and effective unit. The first 45 minutes in Trondheim were a worry - in just their second competitive game of the season against a side halfway through theirs, Hearts were 2-0 down and, most observers would have assumed, on their way out of the competition.

But, led by the prolific Shankland - looking more and more like captain material - they rolled up their sleeves and began the job of turning the tie around.

The self-belief and confidence bred by that remarkable victory at Tynecastle a week later could be priceless and with the return of fit-again Barrie McKay and game time for new signings like Odel Offiah and Kenneth Vargas in the subsequent pummelling of Partick Thistle, Hearts have made real strides in a short space of time.

PAOK assets have commanded big fees

Standing between them and a place in the Conference League group-stage draw are last season's fourth-placed Greek Super League outfit PAOK.

While the return leg might offer an intimidating atmosphere that makes Tynecastle feel like the local library in comparison, the opposition should not strike fear into the hearts of the Jam Tarts.

Baba Rahman playing for Ghana
PAOK left-back Baba Rahman featured for Ghana at last year's World Cup

Like Rosenborg, they are a team whose star is on the wane, falling well short of their traditional rivals AEK, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos last season, having finished second in four of the previous five seasons and winning the title for the third and most recent time in 2019.

They exited the qualifiers of the competition this time last year at the hands of Levski Sofia but this time have battled past Beitar Jerusalem 4-1 on aggregate and Hajduk Split by 3-0.

Although not entirely convincing defensively, they do carry a threat in attack, with the trio comprising Serbian Andrija Zivkovic, German Khaled Narey and Brandon Thomas of Spain all dangerous.

PAOK have not splashed a lot of cash in the transfer market this summer but they have brought in players who not so long ago commanded large fees, notably former Chelsea left-back Baba Rahman (brought to Stamford Bridge for more than £20m) and Ally Samatta, signed from Fenerbahce, moved to Aston Villa three years ago for £10m.

Samatta went off injured on Sunday against Asteras Tripolis in the 3-0 opening league win and may not feature on Thursday night.

All told, PAOK look a competent side and will be a tough opponent, but with Hearts in a good place, there seems no reason why they cannot carve out a first-leg advantage to take to PAOK's notorious Toumba Stadium next week.