Frankie McAvoy confident Hearts can upset PAOK and reach group stage 

The Hearts head coach expects a tough game but has belief in his side.

Frankie McAvoy confident Hearts can upset PAOK and reach Europa Conference League SNS Group

Frankie McAvoy believes Hearts can raise the bar high enough to oust PAOK and secure a return to the Europa Conference League group stage.

The Jambos produced a stirring second-leg performance against Rosenborg last week to overturn a 2-1 first-leg deficit and edge a dramatic third qualifying round tie 4-3 on aggregate.

Head coach McAvoy is expecting an even tougher test from a PAOK side that finished fourth in the Greek Super League last season but is confident Hearts are equipped to rise to the challenge.

“There’s no doubt we need to go up a level again, we will need to lift the level a wee bit more,” he said, ahead of Thursday’s play-off round first leg at Tynecastle.

“I believe we are capable of doing that. We recovered from going a goal behind at home to Rosenborg and recovering from that early setback showed the camaraderie, the real hunger, desire and drive within the group.

“We set ourselves the challenge when we were in close-season that we would try to qualify for the group stages of the Europa Conference League and that is still our aim.

“We now have a two-legged affair with PAOK and hopefully we are good enough to come through that.”

McAvoy feels Hearts can take encouragement from fresh memories of last Thursday’s exploits at Tynecastle as they bid to take a lead to Greece next week.

“It’s another tough tie,” he said. “I don’t think many people would have picked us to go through against Rosenborg over two legs. It’s a similar type of tie.

“PAOK are a good team, very good at home, we need to take the initiative tomorrow. It’s two semi-finals or two finals. Whatever way you want to cut the cake.

“We need to do our utmost to try and take an advantage going over to Greece which will be tough in terms of the heat etc. The most important thing is making sure we are still in the game.

“It would be great if we go with an advantage, that’s what our aim will be, but we also need patience again.

“You don’t want to go gung-ho and get caught in transition because that’s probably a big strength of theirs.

“I think the crowd will play a big part tomorrow. Even when we went a goal down early against Rosenborg, the support was fantastic and drove us on. Players love that. They get a real kick and a drive from it. That will be important tomorrow.

“I thought the noise levels last week were incredible. That was a real driving factor in us getting the win.”

Hearts will again be without long-term injury victims Craig Gordon and Craig Halkett, as well as Peter Haring who is troubled by an ankle issue.

Another notable absentee will be Jorge Grant, who has not been registered in Hearts’ squad for the double-header against the Greeks.

“We have a squad to pick from and Jorge has been unfortunate but that is competition and it’s great to have that where it’s really tough, so Jorge is one who’s lost out,” said McAvoy.

Asked if it could be interpreted as indication that Grant, who joined from Peterborough last summer, will be allowed to leave this month, McAvoy said: “No, at the end of the day he is still part of the squad, we’ve told him that.

“We’ve just got to make our decisions in terms of legal requirements you have got (to register a squad with UEFA). We’ve done that, we’ve sat as a group and worked through it. It’s about balancing what you’ve got, unfortunately Jorge is one we have had to exclude from the squad.”

McAvoy reported that captain Lawrence Shankland remains “very focused” on the task at hand amid ongoing speculation linking him with a move away from Tynecastle.

The striker has been loosely linked with Southampton in recent days following suggestions of interest from Saudi Arabia earlier this month.

“I said this last time I was asked, it’s business as usual,” McAvoy said.

“He’s our captain, a top player. I would expect interest from other clubs but at the moment he is a Hearts player.”

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