Hibs 3, Asteras Tripolis 2: Incredible fightback keeps dream alive
Dead and buried at half-time, Hibs kept their Europa League dream alive with a red-hot second-half performance which left Greek opponents Asteras Tripolis reeling.
Hibs looked finished at the interval as two goals from left-back Georgios Kyriakopoulos looked to have put this second qualifying round beyond them, question marks against on-loan Liverpool goalkeeper Adam Bogdan being asked on both occasions.
But a never-say-die display from Neil Lennon’s players had Easter Road rocking, Efe Ambrose hauling them back into the game before substitute David Gray hammered home an equaliser.
Asteras had centre back Triantafyllos Pasalidis sent off after he picked up a second yellow card with seven minutes remaining but, as the clock ticked down, a draw looked as good as it was going to get for the Capital club.
However, three minutes into added-on time, Hibs brought off another memorable night against a Greek team, repeating the 3-2 scoreline against AEK Athens in 2001 to give themselves hope as they travel to the Peloponnese next week.
Asteras goalkeeper Giorgos Athanasiadis looked to have salvaged a draw for his side as he thrust out a foot to divert Martin Boyle’s shot away from goal but there was Swiss hitman Florian Kamberi coming in at the back post to tap home the winner.
The scorching weather Edinburgh had enjoyed turned the Athens of the North into a home from home for Asteras Tripolis, the mercury touching 27C for kick-off at Easter Road, a temperature more akin to a summer’s day in Greece.
In fact, it was higher than that recorded in the Greek capital – a stark contrast to the dreich, miserable conditions endured by Neil Lennon’s players only seven days earlier in the Faroe Islands as they completed the demolition of NSI Runavik to set up this second qualifying round tie.
Having deployed very much an experimental side then – given the 6-1 victory over the part-timers in Edinburgh the second leg was effectively a formality – Hibs boss Lennon, again watching from the stand as completed his UEFA-imposed ban, opted for experience.
Steven Whittaker sat between a back three and four-man midfield in front of which Boyle operated just off Kamberi and there was early promise as the home side, as predicted by Asteras coach Savvas Pantelidis, immediately took the game to their visitors.
An encouraging sign for the Hibs fans but they were quickly silenced as Asteras took the lead thanks to an error from Bogdan. Kyriakopoulos made ground down the left where the Greeks, whose game is built around the counter-attack, had already threatened before unleashing a shot from a tight angle directed at the goalkeeper’s feet.
It certainly carried plenty of power but the Hungarian internationalist knew he should have done much better than let it go through him and into the net.
Hibs needed to regain their composure and they took a few minutes to do so, John McGinn lifting spirits as he came onto the ball and thundered in a shot which flew just over.
But Whittaker should have levelled the match when, in an obviously pre-planned move, McGinn’s corner found his team-mate with space and time at the back post only to be left visibly frustrated as he side-footed over from just a few yards out.
And Lennon’s side had another glorious chance when Paul Hanlon’s crossfield ball flew over the head of Kyriakopoulos to find Vykintas Slivka, playing wide right of that middle four. The Lithuanian internationalist delivered an inviting low ball but Kamberi tried the deftest of flicks and missed the ball entirely.
Pantelidis had claimed the fact Hibs had played those two games against Runavik would give them a slight advantage in that his players had yet to kick a ball in anger but the Greeks, who had spent pre-season in Poland, looked fit, strong, confident in possession and more than prepared to be as physical as necessary when required.
That confidence was all too evident as Kyriakopoulos doubled their lead with a stunning drive from 25 yards which screamed past Bogdan, who appeared to be caught off-guard, to leave Hibs’ hopes of progressing to the third qualifying round – never mind Lennon’s stated aim of the group stages – in grave doubt.
Hibs were in desperate need of change, and a goal, the introduction of Gray for Whittaker seeing Slivka move into a more familiar central berth and, as at the start of the first half, they got at their opponents.
Ambrose strode forward, got a lucky break of the ball and fed Boyle, who cut in onto his right foot to test Giorgos Athanasiadis for the first time, the Asteras goalkeeper throwing himself to his left to push the ball away.
Lennon had warned his players against the Greeks’ histrionics and it came as no surprise to see the Asteras players need no invitation to crash to the turf, a tactic designed to disrupt the flow of the game.
As much as Hibs needed to take something to Greece next week, they also had to be wary of conceding that goal which would make the trip all but meaningless, substitute Martin Rolle breaking to allow Kosmas Tsiliandis a sight of goal, a chance he could not take.
But the home fans found their voice as Ambrose gave his side hope, the Nigerian defender rising to meet Stevie Mallan’s corner, powering a header off the crossbar and then enjoying a touch of luck as the rebound broke off him and into the net.
The fingertips of Bogdan prevented Tsiliandis addng a third for Asteras before Slivka scorned the opportunity to claim an equaliser, stealing in at the back post to meet Lewis Stevenson’s deep cross but unable to steer his header on target.
Hibs had been a side transformed in the second half and they hauled themselves level with 14 minutes to play, another left-to-right cross from Stevenson finding Gray all alone, the Scottish Cup hero steadying himself before crashing a superb shot beyond Athanasiadis.
Asteras were left to play out the final eight minutes with ten men when Pasalidis, who had picked up a first-half booking, tripped Slivka and was promptly shown a second yellow by referee Andreas Ekberg.
And Hibs almost took full advantage, Gray getting his head to yet another inviting cross from Stevenson, this time Athanasiadis acrobatically beat the ball away.
But then came that dramatic late, late show as Kamberi sent Easter Road wild.
Hibs (3-1-4-2): Bogdan; Ambrose, McGregor, Hanlon (Porteous 90); Whittaker (Gray 46); Slivka, Mallan, McGinn, Stevenson; Boyle, Kamberi. Unused subs: Laidlaw, Bartley, Swanson, Martin, Shaw.
Asteras Tripolis (4-2-3-1): Athanasiadis; Kotsiras, Triantafyllopoulos, Pasalidis, Kyriakopoulos; Iglesias, Munafo; Bellocq (Rolle 56) (Martinez 77), Tsiliandis (Christopoulos 87), Kaltsas; Manias. Unused subs: Papadopoulos, Valiente, Douvikas, Bastianos.
Referee: A Ekberg (Swe).