Analysis: Who Hibs could face in the Europa League
Olivier Ntcham's shot had barely hit the back of Trevor Carson's net as Twitter came alive with jubilant Hibs fans posting pictures of hands reaching into drawers to retrieve passports.
Ntcham’s goal, Celtic’s second of their Scottish Cup final victory against Motherwell, had, of course, secured the Hoops historic back-to-back trebles but, of far more importance to the Easter Road support, it confirmed Hibs’ fourth-place finish in the Premiership would be enough to take Neil Lennon’s players into next season’s Europa League.
Hibs’ season will – as it did two years ago in what was Lennon’s first competitive match as head coach – begin against continental opposition, the obvious hope being this time round will bring more joy than that cruel penalty shoot-out defeat by Danish outfit Brondby.
The Capital club won’t know exactly where they’ll be heading until the draw for the first and second qualifying rounds are made at UEFA’s headquarters in the Swiss town of Nyon on June 19.
However, that small detail won’t stop some heated debate in the meantime with all sorts of topics up for discussion, probably no more so than which opposition would offer, potentially, the best chance of making progress.
To that end, the fact Hibs will be among the seeded teams – albeit towards the lower end of that particular echelon – will bring some optimism as Lennon’s side will avoid “bigger” guns such as Maccabi Tel Aviv, Partizan Belgrade, Molde and Apollon Limassol.
There are, though, more than a few intriguing destinations and a couple of familiar faces lying in wait.
Take, for example, Finnish side Kuopion Palloseura (better known as KUPs), a name which probably won’t register with many Hibs fans until they notice former Easter Road goalkeeper Otso Virtanen – who didn’t last long after his first-leg blunder against Brondby – and Lithuanian striker Deivydas Matulevicius, who also had his time at Easter Road cut short, currently play for the Veikkauslinga club. Icelandic outfit Stjarnan are recent newcomers to the European stage, but did put Motherwell out of this competition in 2014 en-route to a play-off defeat by Inter Milan, although they were well beaten by Celtic in the Champions League the following year.
The mere mention of Progres Niederkorn of Luxembourg will send a shiver down the spine of any Rangers supporter, the Ibrox club’s shock defeat a year ago prompting that famous “rant from a bush” as then boss Pedro Caixinha confronted rightly furious supporters, a result which helped hasten the Portuguese coach’s exit.
Hibs will be hoping to avoid the horror of eight-hour flights to face Armenia’s Banants Yerevan – although they have won just one of 22 matches in Europe – or Gandzaasar Kapan, who have an equally dismal record, while an equally gruelling trip to take on Georgia’s Chikhura Sachkhere, with three wins in 14 matches at this level, is another they’ll be looking to avoid.
Thankfully, Lennon and his players needn’t worry about the time-consuming and energy-sapping journey from being drawn against any of Kazakhstan’s entrants as FC Kairat, FC Irtysh Pavlodar and FC Tobol are all seeded.
Closer to home, Northern Ireland’s Cliftonville, Coleraine and Glenavon would help guarantee an impressive travelling support given the ease with which fans could travel to those clubs, as would being drawn against Connah’s Quay, the Welsh outfit beaten in last season’s Betfred Cup by Dumbarton.
No disrespect to any of them, but no doubt Hibs supporters will no doubt be looking for the draw to deliver them a taste of somewhere that truly smacks of Europe. On June 19, Hibs will not only discover who they will definitely be playing but also who will be lying in wait should they, as hoped, make a bit of progress.
Hibs will be unseeded should they make the second qualifying round and it only takes a swift glance at the clubs coming in at that stage to get the juices flowing – as Lennon himself might say.
Heading the seeds are Spain’s Sevilla – former Europa League winners – Turkish side Besiktas and Braga of Portugal.
Not all of the teams have been confirmed for the first round of the Europa League, but here is a list of all the qualified unseeded teams that Hibs could face:
Stjarnan, IBV Vestmannaeyja
Milsami Orhei, Petrocub Hincesti
Cliftonville, Coleraine, Glenavon
DAC Dunajská Streda
Pyunik, Gandzasar, Banants Yerevan
Partizani, Luftëtari Gjirokastër, Laci
Chikhura Sachkhere, Samtredia
Liepaja, Riga FC
KUPS Kuopio, Ilves, Lahti
REP OF IRELAND
Shamrock Rovers, Derry City