BY ALAN TEMPLE, TALLINN – @CCP_Sport
Proud Hearts skipper Alim Ozturk has described the club’s ascent from the Championship to Europa League as “crazy” – and he is adamant the journey will not end in Estonia.
The 23-year-old joined the Jambos in July 2014 with the club still reeling after relegation from the top-flight and rebuilding from the ashes of administration.
They romped to the second tier title with a record points haul in Ozturk’s maiden campaign in Scottish football and, already a fans’ favourite, he was made skipper last summer.
And he is determined to ensure it is not a one-off as Robbie Neilson’s men defend a 2-1 lead against FC Infonet tonight.
Ozturk said: “It has been an amazing journey from the Championship to the Europa League. It has been crazy. It is only two years ago that we were playing in the lower division and to now lead the team as captain in Europe is unbelievable.
“It was one of my proudest moments last week. Hearts is such a big club and it is an honour for me. From the moment I heard I was the captain of the club, I was dreaming of nights like this.
“I never imagined it would happen so fast. What we have done as a club over the last two years has been special and we what to keep improving and building.
“The away leg is another big moment for me – my first away match in Europe as captain of Hearts. But that is only the start. We don’t want to leave Europe this early after working so hard to get here.
“We will do everything to go through. I think we will – we have to. We have a 2-1 lead and we must secure the result. We have enough quality.”
Despite claiming a narrow win in the first-leg through a Prince Buaben penalty and Andrei Kalimullin’s own goal, Hearts received plenty of criticism for their display last week.
Ozturk is acutely aware that the Jambos were below par, but believes it is vital not to underestimate the importance of FC Infonet’s sharpness – they are 21 games into their domestic campaign – and understandable rustiness from the capital club.
He is certain an extra week of training, as well as their 90 minutes last week, will make all the difference.
Ozturk continued: “We always work hard to improve after every game. It is difficult to have a good performance in every single match. We know all about the first game – we are aware it was not our best performance.
“However, the important thing is we have the 2-1 lead. It is really important to say that it was our first 90 minutes.
“It is a week later, we have played a competitive match and we are more prepared. We, like any other team, need some time to get up to full speed.”
Ozturk believes the visitors will be aided by a more attacking approach from the Estonians, who are acutely aware they must score in order to extend their first ever continental campaign.
While they created chances of their own in Gorgie, Infonet were also a stubborn proposition, stifling the game and defending deep. But Ozturk reckons there will be spaces to exploit tonight.
He added: “Maybe they won’t attack straight from the whistle, but they need to come at us at some point.
“When they came to Tynecastle they were a very defensive team and put on a good performance, but they will need to change in Tallinn – we are leading and they must score.”