Only two Scottish clubs have reached the UEFA Champions League group stage - Rangers FC and Celtic FC - and if Heart of Midlothian FC are to emulate the Glasgow giants, they will need to turn around a 2-1 deficit at AEK Athens FC. Their Greece defender Panagiotis Fyssas returns to his homeland tonight, eager to prove a point.
"The feeling in Greece is that Hearts are not such a good team and I was very disappointed and angry about that," the 33-year-old former Panionios NFC, Panathinaikos FC and SL Benfica left-back told uefa.com. "They could not understand we had so many players missing through injury, and Julien Brellier and Deividas Cesnauskis couldn't play at the last minute. I was hoping people in Greece would have understood that. They didn't and that is why I want to out tonight and do well and for Hearts to play well as a team."
Fyssas, part of Greece's UEFA EURO 2004™-winning side, has of course been the focus of attention on his trip back to Athens, but he is playing down the personal significance of this meeting with old rivals. "
I knew one day I would return to my country to play a Greek team in Europe and I've been waiting for this moment a long time," he said. "However, now it is happening, it does not feel so important to me as it's much more vital for my team. We know we didn't play that well in the first game but in football you can't afford to be negative. We can show against AEK that we are not such an easy opponent. Hearts have come here thinking we can go through to the group stage."
If Hearts are to make the group stage for the first time, they will have to achieve what no other Scottish club have done and win a European tie on Greek soil. However, with AEK now playing home games at the Olympic stadium - venue for this season's UEFA Champions League final - Fyssas senses an opportunity for the Edinburgh outfit, especially as the arena holds good memories from his five years at Panathinaikos.
"It was very difficult to play at AEK's old stadium, the Nikos Goumas, and in all my time at Panathinaikos I never won there," said Fyssas. "I know the Olympic stadium well because it was my home ground with Panathinaikos and it generates a great atmosphere. The fans will be a long way from the pitch, so the atmosphere may not be as intimidating as their old stadium which was demolished last year and that has to be a good thing for us. We will be going out there in a positive frame of mind."
Hearts are without Czech striker Roman Bednář through injury and midfielder Bruno Aguiar through suspension, but the other absentees from a fortnight ago should return. AEK goalkeeper Stefano Sorrentino, hurt in a weekend car accident, is replaced by Dionisios Chiotis - who made his European debut in 2001 against Hearts's city rivals Hibernian FC. They also miss injured defender Giorgios Alexopoulos and recently-signed quartet Andrija Delibašić, Vassilios Zikos, Ifeanyi Udeze and Gustavo Manduca, who joined after the registration deadline. Coach Lorenzo Serra Ferrer said: "We respect Hearts but our intention is not to defend the result we got in Scotland, but to keep our attacking spirit."
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