PAT Fenlon today admitted Hibs must get the first goal when they face Malmo again in six days time or face a Europa League exit after watching his side concede two quick-fire goals in Sweden.
However, the Easter Road outfit at least gave themselves a fighting chance by restricting the Swedes to only those two goals.
The first was a stunning free kick from skipper Jiloan Hamad, conceded after his opposite number James McPake was adjudged to have caught Tokelo Rantie as he was caught out by the South African’s pace.
Despite protestations that his opponent had gone rather too easily, McPake was perhaps lucky to escape a red card. Rantie certainly thought so, as he later claimed, although a goal was certainly not a bad second prize.
Malmo’s second came just three minutes later, Emil Forsberg’s trickery allowing him to cut the ball back for Magnus Eriksson, to slide it home with less than 15 minutes of the match having expired.
Those strikes stunned the colourful 600 or so Hibs fans gathered behind goalkeeper Ben Williams into silence, leaving them fearing the worst as Malmo, looking far sharper given they are halfway through their season, threatened to run riot.
It might have been a different story, however, had new signing Owain Tudur Jones not powered a header over after being found alone and in space just six yards out by Liam Craig’s free kick.
That miss paved the way for those Malmo goals but Hibs were certainly unlucky when Rowan Vine collected Kevin Thomson’s pass to wheel and drift a shot over the head of startled goalkeeper Johan Dahlin only to see it clip the post and to safety.
Thereafter, though, Hibs had Williams to thank, the big No 1 pulling off stunning saves either side of half-time from Eriksson and Tokelo Rantie and later from Hamad while Simon Thern, the son of former Rangers star Jonas, seeing his rising shot crash off the bar.
However, to Hibs’ credit they hung on in there, substitute Ross Caldwell scuffing a late shot into the arms of Dahlin while Malmo defender Pontius Jansson was left holding his head after getting it in the way of a Craig piledriver.
Today Fenlon conceded Malmo’s superior fitness was a telling factor while claiming if Hibs had been at a similar stage of their season they’d have presented an entirely different proposition to the Swedish league leaders.
The Irishman said: “We had a couple of chances and when you get chances you need to score.
“But you could see the difference in the sharpness and the movement because they’ve played so many games and our lads took a while to get going.
“We conceded what we feel were poor goals because we had a throw-in in the corner in an attacking area and we concede off that, and that shouldn’t happen. In saying that, they had a few chances as well and Ben made some good saves.
“We had chances – Owain with a header, Liam’s shot in the second-half and Rowan’s shot that hit the post.
“It was a tough night, but we knew it was going to be because they’re a good team. Their movement was very good, but if we had 15 or 16 games under our belts I think we would have acquitted ourselves a bit better.
“In both halves we were sluggish, down to the fact we’ve not played too many competitive matches, and I think this game will help us, particularly for the second-leg.
“It was important we didn’t concede again and Ben takes a lot of credit for that – as do the back four.
“We defended better in the second-half, I thought, and we grew into the game as it went on. We always believed if we can get it back to Easter Road and get the first goal then hopefully it puts a bit of doubt into their heads.
“It’s going to be a tough night for us again. They’re a decent side, but we’ve got to get the first goal and then see what happens.
“If we had taken one or two of our chances it would have been a completely different game, because the ideal thing when you come away from home is to nick an away goal.
“We didn’t do that and we conceded two, but we’ve got to go and score the first goal. That’s the key to the second-leg. If we score the first goal then it becomes a different game.”
Fenlon praised the travelling Hibs support who made their presence felt throughout, despite seeing those early goals conceded.
He said: “I’ve got no worries about the atmosphere at our place. Our supporters again were fantastic tonight and their support was tremendous, as it was last week when I came to see them against Drogheda. There was a good atmosphere around the stadium, but I’m sure ours will be a good place to be come next Thursday.
“It was good to get the new players their debuts, get them bedded in and get the playing, and also to get some young boys experience as well of playing in Europe.
“I said to them at the end that you can’t buy what they got out there in relation to training. You can’t train at that level and that sharpness. Some of our lads were out on their feet at the end, but it’s worth more than any training session.
“It’s tough, there’s no doubt. We’re 2-0 down and it’s a tough ask, but it’s been done before.
“We’ve got to make sure they come to Easter Road and the place is rocking and we have a right go. The first goal is the key to the whole game. If we can do that it does change things. I’ve seen it before in European games when teams that have 2-0 leads concede a goal and they get edgy.
“We’ve also got to make sure we don’t concede and if we can get the first goal then it’s game on. I’m sure our place will be as boisterous as it was tonight.”
“It’s not over, but it’s going to be a big ask for us.”
Malmo skipper Hamad agreed with Fenlon’s assessment, but insisted that if Hibs try to chase the game next Thursday then he and his team-mates are more than capable of hitting on the break and claiming the away goal that would kill any hopes of a fightback to rival that of the AEK Athens match 12 years go.
The midfield playmaker said: “It was a good result, but it is not over. We still have great respect for them and I think they will be stronger. There is a big difference between 2-0 and 3-0, but we feel we can score at least one.
“Personally I can’t wait, I’d rather be playing the game today rather than waiting to next week.”
Hamad’s boss Rikard Norling admitted he was happy enough with his team’s work, although he claimed Williams had kept Hibs in the tie with his heroics.
He said: “We created maybe three really good chances, almost 100 per cent chances, and we had maybe two or three really good chances apart from those as well.
“When you see the ball is not going into the net then, of course, you are disappointed.
“In the end when we didn’t score a third goal. We were focusing more on not conceding a goal, because away goals are very valuable in European football.
“It would have been great to have scored one or two more to take with us to Scotland.
“But they also had a shot off the post in the first-half and two good chances in the last ten minutes.
“In the end we have a result and will take it to Edinburgh and see what happens.
“We were a little bit lucky with the ball that hit the post but the header early on I think was too far out to trouble our keeper.”
Hibs had gone into the match with the stated intention of, at least, keeping the tie alive ahead of Thursday’s return leg – they achieved that target, but only just. An epic comeback will be needed.