Hearts travel to Greece for the return leg of their Europa Conference League play-off against PAOK with it all to do if they are to advance to the group stages after the Edinburgh club were narrowly defeated 2-1 at home to the Greek side.

Both sides found the net early on in the capital and while PAOK carried an obvious threat, particularly on the counter, Hearts can consider themselves unfortunate to go into Thursday’s second leg in Thessaloniki trailing by a goal.

Here are four talking points from an intriguing encounter in Gorgie.

Tactical tweaks

Head coach Frankie McAvoy deviated from the 4-2-3-1 system employed for Sunday’s 4-0 thrashing of Partick Thistle in the Viaplay Cup, instead opting for a flat 4-4-2. When the team was announced, a few eyebrows shot up in surprise in the Tynecastle media room – but it had nothing to do with the team’s shape.

A quick scroll through the line-up and there was one thing that immediately jumped out: Hearts had named only one recognised central midfielder, Cameron Devlin. The feisty Australian was partnered in the middle by Alex Cochrane, a left-back by trade – a bold choice, given so much was riding on the outcome of this contest.

The rest of the team was largely as expected, with a back four of Stephen Kingsley, Kye Rowles, Frankie Kent and Nathaniel Atkinson protecting Zander Clark in goal. Barrie McKay and Kenneth Vargas occupied either wing, while Lawrence Shankland sat off Liam Boyce at the tip of the hosts’ spear.

A lot was asked of Cochrane in his unfamiliar role but to his credit, the 23-year-old handled the occasion pretty well. There were a few rushed passes early on that prompted exasperated sighs from the stands but it wasn’t long until the Englishman got into the swing of things. It was an encouraging performance on the whole from Hearts, and Cochrane didn’t look out of place whatsoever.

Hearts go on the offensive

PAOK may well operate on a budget that dwarfs the spending power available to the Gorgie club, but that didn’t mean that Hearts were going to sit off their opponents and treat them like that. Hibernian’s thrashing at home to Aston Villa the night before had offered a stark warning on the dangers of being too passive in continental competition, and so the home side started on the front foot at Tynecastle.

That positivity would be rewarded within minutes of kick-off. After receiving the ball at the halfway line, Vargas burst up the right wing, peeling away from PAOK captain Stefan Schwab as he drove menacingly into the box. A poorly-timed tackle from Schwab sent the Costa Rican plummeting to the floor and although referee Andris Treimanis was initially unmoved, a VAR review at the pitchside monitor changed his mind. Up stepped Shankland to slot the ball home, with the resulting celebrations just about taking the roof of Tynecastle.

Within seconds of the restart, though, an awkward hush enveloped the famous old ground. PAOK had come flying forward upon the restart as Andrija Zivkovic made it into the Hearts area, drawing a clumsy challenge from Rowles. Treimanis pointed to the spot once again, with Schwab redeeming his earlier transgression to draw the Greeks level.

Hearts didn’t let that deter them, though. They continued to be brave on the ball and ask awkward questions of their opponents. Vargas, Shankland and Boyce all came close within a few seconds of the half-hour mark as they peppered the PAOK goal, with only the sharp reactions of goalkeeper Dominik Kotarski ensuring the scores remained level.

Hearts kept up the momentum in the second half. Kingsley flashed an opportunistic shot just wide of the target a few minutes in, Shankland had a goal chopped off for offside and Vargas hit a pot-shot just wide but they couldn’t find the breakthrough.

They would be punished for profligacy with 15 minutes to go. A corner for PAOK was worked to Zivkovic 25 yards from goal, whereby the attacker unleashed an unstoppable shot that flew beyond Clark and into the back of Hearts’ net.

PAOK pace can hurt Hearts

Fine margins separate teams at this level, and it was hard to escape the fact that PAOK were simply quicker getting forward than Hearts. Whenever there was a slack pass or a loose touch in midfield from a maroon jersey, Razvan Lucescu’s men wasted no time in shifting the ball forward at lightning speed to try and take advantage. Their threat was clear and obvious.

Atkinson, at right-back, found himself up against tricky opponents in left winger Taison and left-back Rafa Soares and at times the Australian looked uncomfortable with the pair’s surging runs forward. A little extra defensive reinforcement in this area wouldn’t go amiss for next week’s return fixture.

Electric Tynecastle

The crowd at a sold-out Tynecastle didn’t require much invitation to get up for this one. The home win over Rosenborg in the previous round was played against a thunderous backdrop, and the first leg of the play-off followed suit.

The roar at kick-off was deafening, and the passionate support from the stands didn’t relent during 90 manic minutes in Gorgie. From the first kick to the last, every tackle and bit of individual skill was met with a roar of approval, while the home fans weren’t shy about voicing their disapproval when a decision went against them. The hundreds of PAOK fans that made the trip to Edinburgh played their part too, generating an impressive level of noise.

Hearts were feeding off the energy supplied by the crowd – just as PAOK inevitably will at the infamously hostile Toumba Stadium next week – and this first leg showed just how grand an arena Tynecastle can be on a European night. Supporters will be hoping that this wasn’t the last time they’ll see it this season, and the players have given them reason to believe they can progress. They fell just short on this occasion, but showed they can compete at this level.