BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Hearts captain Alim Ozturk is counting on a downpour of rain and a deluge of goals when Maltese minnows Birkirkara visit Tynecastle.
The 23-year-old admits he has never experienced heat and humidity comparable to the Hibernians Stadium on Thursday evening, with temperatures reaching 30 degrees Celsius and players struggling to catch a breath.
The contest was stopped for Uefa mandated water breaks in each half, yet several Jambos players, including the tireless Callum Paterson, vomited due to exhaustion following the full-time whistle.
Even having plied his trade with Trabzonspor in the baking heat of Turkey, the conditions were an eye opener for the classy defender, who admits the visitors had to tailor their game to suit the weather.
After securing a very creditable 0-0 draw, he is now hungrily eyeing the second leg on Gorgie next week and hopes the notoriously unpredictable Scottish weather plays a part – so the hosts can step up the tempo and rain on Birkirkara’s parade.
Ozturk said: “It will be good for us to be back in Edinburgh as the Tynecastle pitch will be nothing like it was on Thursday night and with the fans behind us it will make all the difference.
“We know now how they play and, at Tynecastle, with a wet pitch and more calm conditions it will be a lot easier for us. If we play the game at a high tempo then I think we can beat them.
“If I could choose the weather then I’d definitely go for it to be cold and raining next week!
“In Turkey I played a lot of evening games but they weren’t hotter than the game in Malta. I wasn’t one of the players sick, but I saw Callum [Paterson] struggling a bit. We trained a bit the day before the game and that was even worse.
“It’s really hard to play against these types of teams. Anything can happen in Europe and we saw that with Celtic losing 1-0 in Gibraltar.
“People may think it’s easy but when they play with eleven men behind the ball in these conditions it can be tough. We tried to break them and created chances, but 0-0 isn’t a bad score.”
Indeed, Birkirkara showed very little to suggest they will be capable of springing a shock when they arrive in Edinburgh.
They sat deep, soaked up pressure and made very little attempt to carve open their visitors, despite the stifling heat and dry pitch seemingly affording them an excellent opportunity to try to secure a first leg lead.
Conor Sammon saw a goal contentiously disallowed, while Ozturk rattled the cross-bar with a thunderous drive from 35 yards – a carbon copy of his wonder-goal against his in the 1-1 draw of October 2014.
He smiled: “I was already running to celebrate with the Hearts fans at the side of the pitch!
“It was close but it didn’t go in, I felt it was a good hit but just a little bit unlucky. A few of the boys told me after the game that it would have been like the goal I scored against Hibs, but it wasn’t to be this time.”
Following yesterday’s draw, the Jambos now knows what awaits them in the third qualifying round, should they progress – another testing tie against Russian outfit FC Krasnodar.
However, the big Turk will not let his focus wander until Hearts have finished the job against Birkirkara.
He added: “It won’t matter [who we could play] if we don’t win next week. We have to win this game first and that’s what we are looking at before anything else. If we beat Birkirkara then we will start looking ahead.
“It’s so important we win and we know we have to be very careful at home. If they were to score one goal then it changes everything so the we need to take care. I have confidence in my team but we have to be careful.”