Aston Villa up there with Barcelona as Hibs stalwart makes 'best team' claim ahead of Euro showdown
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The 35-year-old has seen it all in a green and white shirt: Scottish Cup wins, League Cup wins, promotion, relegation, European campaigns, you name it. But despite closing in on 600 career appearances for the Capital club, he is still enjoying football firsts.
"Apart from the Barcelona friendly, they’ll be the best team I’ve faced,” he said, when quizzed about the Europa Conference League play-off encounter. “We’ve come up against good Celtic and Rangers teams but even money-wise, they’re a step ahead. It’s going to be really tough. It’s something that I thought I’d never do, play against an English Premier League team in a competitive game and I’ll be trying to make the most of it. I’ll be telling the younger ones that these games don’t come around very often so we need to enjoy them.”
Hibs are very much underdogs for the tie, and not just because Aston Villa spent a reported combined £83.4 million on Spanish centre-back Pau Torres from Valencia and Bayer Leverkusen’s French international winger Moussa Diaby, and nearly £4.5m on Nicolò Zaniolo’s loan from Galatasaray. Assistant boss Adam Owen positioned Unai Emery’s side as favourites to lift the Conference League trophy, following in the footsteps of English Premier League cohorts West Ham United last season, while the Spanish coach has won the Europa League four times; thrice with Sevilla and once with Valencia. But while the odds are stacked against Hibs, Stevenson believes that can work in their favour.
“We are a good counter attacking team, we’ve got threats and a lot of pace up front and pace can cause teams bother at any level,” he continued. “We’ll need to ride our luck, be on our game and see where it takes us. It’s a strange kick off time, it will be tough for people. It's a massive occasion for Villa as well, they’ve not been in Europe for 13 years. We’ve got the experience of playing in Europe so you never know, we’ll see what happens.”
Few will give Hibs a chance against their multi-million pound opponents but Stevenson – who has been part of teams to upset the odds previously – is desperate for Lee Johnson’s side to have something to play for in the return leg at Villa Park a week on Thursday.
"I can’t emphasise how hard it’s going to be but we’re not just here to make up the numbers or be here for the occasion,” he added “We need to try and put some sort of game in. We’re not just here to get our tummies tickled. We prepared for Raith the same we’ll prepare for Villa and we need to focus on the match rather than the occasion.
"It’s going to be really hard because they have top, top players. I think we’ve had some decent success against Celtic and Rangers and we kind of need to look at that to emulate that scenario. We’ll need to be solid but still have that threat.”