Hibs came within a whisker of overturning a 2-0 first-leg defeat to a formidable Greek outfit with a rousing performance in front of their own fans at Easter Road.
The Hibees had been knocked out of the UEFA Cup at the first round stage, but the Leith side took their leave of the competition with their heads held high after failing, but only just, to complete one of the greatest fightbacks in the club’s history.
A two-goal deficit from the first leg of this first-round tie in Athens had left Alex McLeish’s players facing a formidable task against a side with great European pedigree.
But McLeish’s quiet confidence that his players had what it took to pull off what would have been regarded as something of a shock on the continent proved to be well-founded as Hibs had the Greeks hanging on the ropes in a sensational second half.
It had been evident from the first minute that McLeish’s players felt a place in the second round was well within their grasp, Paco Luna unleashing a low shot which AEK’s stand-in goalkeeper Dionissis Chiotis was grateful to hold at the second attempt. That was only the start as Chiotis, who had been given a vote of confidence from his coach Fernando Santos only to look pretty ropey, was given a good working over.
Time and again he came and flapped at crosses, pushing one to the feet of Ian Murray only for the youngster’s shot to be blocked.
Luna headed over after Mathias Jack, who enjoyed an immense match in the centre of the park where he snarled and snapped at anyone in a yellow shirt, had whipped the ball in from the right.
And, as a low shot from Ulises de la Cruz clipped a heel and spun wide, the 16,000 Hibs fans inside the stadium might have begun to believe it just wasn’t to be.
Within seven minutes of the restart, Easter Road exploded as a cross from De la Cruz was flicked on by John O’Neil for Murray to launch a header goalwards, the ball being met by Luna, who powered it in off the underside of the bar. And the roof almost came off the main stand with eight minutes remaining as the Spaniard did it again, sliding the ball into the net after Ulrik Laursen had nodded O’Neil’s free-kick back across goal.
Incredibly, Luna had a last-gasp chance to claim a glory hat-trick and write his name into Hibs folklore, throwing himself at De la Cruz’s cross only to glance the ball wide. How Hibs, who by this time had lost influential skipper Franck Sauzee with a cut below his right eye, were to regret that miss, substitute Vassilis Tsartas putting the home side back where they started, needing two goals to keep the tie alive, when he rifled home a low shot just two minutes into extra-time. AEK rubbed salt into Hibs’ wounds as Paul Fenwick and Grzegorz Mielcarski went for Tsartas’ near-post corner, the ball skimming their heads to pull the Greeks level on the night and to put them two goals ahead overall.
A stunning 35-yard strike from David Zitelli gave Hibs, at least, victory on the night but that was scant consolation for McLeish and his players.
Hibs: Colgan, Orman, Sauzee, Fenwick, Laursen, De La Cruz, Jack, O’Neil, Murray, Brewster, Luna.