The first half of Hibs’ route to the Europa League group stage is now plotted and, even allowing for the summer hazards Scottish clubs now routinely face in continental competition, it looks negotiable.
Neil Lennon’s side will kick off their latest adventure with a first qualifying round tie against NSI Runavik of the Faroe Islands. If, as expected, they come through that, they will then face Greek side Asteras Tripolis.
Although they would be slight underdogs for the second qualifying round clash with a side who have recent Europa League group stage experience, the outcome of yesterday’s draw in Nyon, Switzerland could have been significantly worse for Hibs. In avoiding relative heavyweights like Sevilla, Bordeaux, RB Leipzig and even Burnley – Aberdeen’s opponents – the Edinburgh side are entitled to feel that they have a realistic chance of making it to the third qualifying round, which represents the penultimate hurdle before qualification for the group stage can be achieved with victory in the play-off round.
Of course, as manager Lennon was keen to stress in the aftermath of yesterday’s draw, that feat can only be achieved if Hibs don’t take their eye off the ball for their opening matches against the Faroese part-timers. Runavik have competed in Europe on ten previous occasions and are still waiting for their first two-legged triumph. They have exited the Europa League to Belarussian opposition in the first qualifying round in each of the previous two years. Prior to that, in 2015, they succumbed 5-4 on aggregate to a Linfield side containing former Hibs winger Ivan Sproule, although they did take some consolation from a 4-3 home win over the Northern Irish side.
“Without being disrespectful to Runavik, I thoroughly expect Hibs to win comfortably,” Sproule told the Evening News. “With the firepower they’ve got, I’d think they would easily turn them over in the two legs. Runavik were a competitive side but you’ve got to remember Linfield are also a part-time side. We actually started very well in the away game but we were probably guilty of taking our foot off the gas and they came back and won 4-3. We weren’t happy in the dressing-room afterwards but I think the fact we were a part-time team was to our detriment. I don’t think Hibs will have any problems because they’re a well-drilled team and Neil Lennon knows the European scene very well.”
Runavik’s chances aren’t helped by the fact their own humble ground, which holds less than 2000 people, isn’t UEFA compliant, so they have to play their European matches elsewhere. They will face Hibs in Toftir. Despite their lack of European success thus far, midfielder Betuel Hansen believes his side will benefit from their past experiences and is hopeful that they can put up a decent challenge to Hibs.
The Faroe Islands Under-21 internationalist, who works with the Faroese tax and customs authorities in his day job, told the Evening News: “We know it is going to be a difficult match. Personally, I do not really know much about Hibernian, other than that they finished fourth last season, but I know that the pace of the game in the Scottish Premiership is higher than in the Faroese Betri Deildin, so we have to be smart and stay focused. We know it is going to be difficult to win over two legs and get through, but we have confidence and faith in ourselves. Anything is possible, so why not?”
If Sproule’s assertion that Hibs will be too strong for the Faroese side is vindicated, they will go on to face Greek opposition for the first time since losing narrowly to AEK Athens in 2001, with the first leg against Asteras Tripolis at Easter Road on Thursday July 26, and the second leg at the 7600-capacity Theodoros Kolokotronis Stadium in the historic city of Tripoli in southern Greece on August 2. After spending most of their existence in the lower leagues In Greece, Asteras started to come to prominence in the Noughties. They won promotion to the top flight for the first time in 2007 and have remained there ever since, establishing themselves as one of the most buoyant and well-run clubs in Greece.
“Outwith Athens and Thessaloniki, Asteras is the most successful team in Greece in recent years,” said Greek journalist Panagiotis Dalatariof, who covers Asteras for Gazzetta.Gr website. “They are one of the best-organised clubs in Greece.”
Although they had their momentum temporarily disrupted by a disappointing 12th-place finish in the 2016/17 campaign, followed by a dismal start to last season, Asteras have rediscovered their mojo since hiring current coach Savvas Pantelidis, and their impressive surge to fifth place in the Greek Super League last season secured them a crack at the Europa League for the fifth time since they first achieved the feat in 2012. While Hibs may boast a richer European pedigree over the long term, Asteras certainly have significantly more recent Europa League experience than their likely opponents from Edinburgh. They featured in the group stage two years running, in 2014/15 and 2015/16, and finished third on both occasions. Although heavily beaten by both Schalke 04 and Tottenham Hotspur, they are buoyed by memories of home wins over Partizan Belgrade and APOEL. With a settled and harmonious squad made up predominantly of Greeks and a smattering of Spaniards and Argentines, they will be confident of overcoming Hibs after returning from a pre-season training camp in Poland next month.
“They are a very compact side and they are a very settled team from last year,” continued Dalatariof. “The atmosphere in the dressing-room is really good – they are like a family. They also have some good European experience from playing against teams like Tottenham and Besiktas and Spartak Moscow in recent years, so it will be a tough game for Hibernian. But it will also be a tough game for Asteras. Teams from Britain are never easy for Greek teams. I know Tottenham are a different level to Hibernian, but I think that Hibernian will be a hard opponent for Asteras and I think we will have two very close matches.” Although Greek stadiums can be renowned for hostility, the travelling Hibs support are not expected to encounter any problems from the locals. Dalatriof also played down any concerns about the Hibs players wilting in the Greek summer heat. “The stadium is never full,” he continued. “I think there will only be about 3000 people there. There are not so many of them but they are passionate and devoted to their team. It is not one of the most modern stadiums around but I don’t think the Hibernian fans will have any trouble. When other fans go there, they never have a problem. The support is very young – many of them are still of school age. The city itself is very quiet – it is a very historic city. It has one of the biggest squares in Greece, with a lot of cafes and restaurants. In Tripoli, it generally doesn’t get so hot. It is more likely to rain – it rains most days!”