Former Hibs player Kevin Nicol believes the Easter Road outfit’s formidable home record holds the key to Neil Lennon’s side claiming a Europa League play-off spot.
Norwegian club Molde, managed by Manchester United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, stand in their way but Nicol, who has spent the past 12 years playing and managing in the Scandinavian country, is quietly confident Hibs’ bid to reach the group stages can remain on track.
The Edinburgh side haven’t lost at Easter Road in any competition this calendar year, their last defeat on their home turf coming at the hands of Rangers in mid-December.
Nicol, currently manager of Norwegian club Asker on the outskirts of Oslo, witnessed that narrow 2-1 loss at first hand, sharing the belief of most observers that his old side deserved at least a point having hit the woodwork twice while also being denied a stonewall penalty.
Since then, Hibs have clocked up 13 matches at home without defeat and after Lennon’s players edged out Asteras Tripolis in the second qualifying round after coming from behind to snatch a narrow but vital victory to take to Greece, Nicol feels Thursday night’s first leg in Edinburgh could well prove to be just as pivotal.
Admitting his belief that Hibs can continue to progress at the expense of Molde is a personal one rather than a view widely held in Norway, the ex-midfielder said: “Scottish football in general is doing well at the moment, which is good to see and Hibs are going really well under Neil Lennon.
“I’m sure the players will have taken a lot of confidence from their win over Asteras. Scottish clubs have struggled a bit against Greek teams, but to have gone there and won the tie on aggregate will have given everyone a lift.
“The Norwegian people have a lot of respect for Scottish football, but there’s no doubt Molde will fancy their chances. However, I don’t see why Hibs shouldn’t win.
“Playing at home first does, I think, give Hibs the advantage. Scottish fans are much more passionate than those in Norway and Easter Road seems to be rocking at the moment, there’s a real enthusiasm for the football they are playing under Neil Lennon and, as we have seen, their games are attracting pretty big crowds.
“I think everyone at the club still remembers the atmosphere the night of that AEK Athens match and hopefully the supporters can be Hibs 12th man against Molde.”
Like Hibs, Molde have been scoring plenty of goals, Solskjaer’s side claiming six as they defeated Glenavon of Northern Ireland and five more in disposing of Albanian side KF Laçi to set up this showdown with the Edinburgh side who themselves have hit the net 16 times in taking care of NSI Runavik and Asteras.
Such statistics lead Nicol to believe Thursday night’s match and the return in Norway a week later could continue in such vein, although he joked: “In saying that I’ve probably put a curse on it, there will be two 0-0 draws and it will go to penalties.
“But to be serious, I think the strength of Molde, like Hibs, lies more in going forward than defending. They are one of the biggest teams in Norway with one of the biggest budgets and are a team that’s done well in Europe.
“They’ve had some good results so far this season, enjoyed comfortable wins and scored a few goals, which will give them confidence.
“Molde are a side who like to play football. They are quite flexible in that they can play a variety of formations. They have individuals who could cause problems, but so, too, do Hibs.”
Nicol singled out Etzaz Hussain as Molde’s midfield general and being someone who can take control of a game, while up front they have Erling Braut Haland, the son of former Manchester City and Leeds United star Alf-Inge and seen as the best prospect in Scandinavia at present.
But, just as Hibs face this coming week fretting over the future of their coveted midfielder John McGinn, Molde find themselves in a similar situation, with Austrian club Salzburg having reportedly launched a £9million bid for the striker.
Nicol said: “Haland is big, strong, very quick and capable of causing problems if he’s playing. But, to be honest, I think McGinn would be a bigger loss to Hibs than Haland would be to Molde.
“Haland has plenty of potential, but McGinn is the main man for Hibs. He’s one of the best in Scotland so it’s no surprise he’s attracting interest. But Hibs are perfectly right to hold out for what they believe is his true valuation.”
Since last seeing Hibs in action back in December, Lennon has added Swiss striker Flo Kamberi and, now, Aussie hitman Jamie Maclaren to his squad, the pair having joined on loan in January to form a lethal frontline for the Easter Road side.
Nicol said: “I thought Hibs were a little bit light up front that night, but I’ve watched a few games on television and it’s obvious Kamberi has made a big difference. Dylan McGeouch was another I liked and Hibs would have been sorry to see him go to Sunderland, but they’ve brought in Stevie Mallan who, on the evidence so far, has brought more goals from midfield. His delivery from set-pieces is superb and he’s got a great strike on him.”
Nicol admitted he’ll also be interested in seeing Lennon and Solskjaer pit their wits against each other. He said: “Ole is the one name the Hibs fans will recognise after his time at Manchester United, but Lennon’s just as well known in Norway. They’ve both been round the block and know what it is all about in Europe.”