Hearts pay cost of interference

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The Independent Football

Valdas Ivanauskas did not quite clock up as many air miles as Gordon Strachan in midweek, but he outdid his managerial rival for travel sickness. While Celtic flew to the other end of the world and back to get to Tynecastle today, poor Ivanauskas returned from a seemingly successful trip to Bosnia to find his world turned upside down.

Doubts have arisen as to whether the Heart of Midlothian head coach will keep his job, despite guiding them to the brink of the Champions' League promised land, after upsetting the club's volatile owner, Vladimir Romanov. All Strachan had to worry about on the way home from Japan was how to spend the £1 million a friendly with Yokohama F Marinos had earnt.

The benefits of the contrasting styles of leadership will be seen today as Hearts take on Celtic in a contest that will give an early indication of whose ambitions are the more genuine. On the outside, it appears Rom- anov's interference is counter-productive. It is hard to see himgiving his coach the latitude Strachan was allowed at the start of last season, when he turned an ignominious Champions' League exit to Artmedia Brati-slava and a humbling by Rangers into a runaway title success.

Hearts returned from Bosnia, where they had booked their passage into the third qualifying round of the Champions' League by easing past Siroki Brijeg 3-0 on aggregate to set up a clash with AEK Athens that will draw 40,000 fans to Murrayfield on Wednesday for the first leg. Reason for a smile, you would have thought.

Well, no. Romanov was unhappy with the 0-0 draw in Bosnia, and publicly castigated his players. Ivanauskas has denied reports that he has to beat Celtic to avoid the sack. "We have had no row," he insisted on Friday. "It is a non-story. How could we have a row if Mr Romanov departed from the stadium right after the game?"

The baggage that Hearts carry around because of Romanov is substantial. The owner has already attracted the Scottish FA's attention because of claims that Celtic and Rangers were favoured by referees. Last week, the millionaire accused the Old Firm of playing "crude, unsophisticated football."

A statement from the heart, or merely designed to irritate? Either way, Strachan will have no shortage of motivational material. Only three who played in Japan will start today. "I kept a few back in Glasgow - eight from our starting line-up last Saturday - and they should be all right. Shunsuke Nakamura is used to the journey to Tokyo and back."

Ivanauskas does not believe either side will be running low on energy today. "We had a long bus trip from Bosnia to the airport in Split, but footballers are used to all this," said the Hearts coach. "Am I surprised at Celtic going to Japan? No, they had a good reason - business."

Tynecastle will see which of last season's high-fliers can cope with the early-season altitude.

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