Hibs have nothing to fear in Nantes, says Steve Kean, after claiming UEFA Youth League advantage

Hibs academy boss Steve Kean insists his under-19 team have what it takes to finish off the job next week after a 1-0 first leg victory against French cracks FC Nantes in the UEFA Youth League second round tie at Easter Road.

Ethan Laidlaw’s 73rd-minute penalty in front of an impressive 2,860 crowd gives Hibs a golden opportunity to extend their European adventure and Kean believes there is nothing to fear in the return leg in north west France next Wednesday. A play-off for a spot in the last 16 of the competition will be up for grabs against a Champions League group runner-up.

“We’ve seen enough to know that we can go and get a result over there,” said Kean. “This game was a step up and the opposition were great, but we matched them and we grew and got better as the game went on.

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“We’re delighted to go over to France with a lead, but slightly disappointed it wasn’t two or three. We probably had the best chances, but they had 60 per cent possession. But they didn’t really create any chances with it, mainly shorts from distance.

Hibs Under-19s line up before their UEFA Youth League second round first leg clash with Nantes at Easter Road. Picture: Hibernian FC

“We had to change shape. Early on they were really controlling it and there wasn’t a lot of pressure on the ball. We changed to a back three and the lads adapted well and in the second half we were excellent. We had our best spell midway though the second half and should probably have had another goal or two.”

Laidlaw earned the penalty himself with a direct run inside the box resulting in a trip. He despatched the spot kick with confidence in front of the noisy Block Seven fans and enjoyed the opportunity to celebrate with them.

Kean had warned before the game that he expected Nantes to provide a stiff test, pointing out that their team is generally older and more experienced. The French visitors dispatched of Armenian side Pyunik 5-0 on aggregate in the previous round and play together regularly in the French under-19 league each Sunday.

They are 10 games into their season and currently lie sixth in the 14-team division after winning their last two games. Hibs, on the other hand, play in an under-18 league in Scotland and have been forced to use recent Reserve League and Reserve Cup fixtures to bring their eligible under-19s together in preparation for this European test.

Ethan Laidlaw celebrates after scoring from the only goal penalty spot after he himself was fouled in the box. Picture: Hibernian FC

Kean, whose team knocked out FK Molde of Norway on penalties in the previous round, set up his team to play 4-4-2 but was forced into a tactical change after ten minutes to match up a Nantes team who lined up in a 3-5-2 shape and quickly took control. That involved shifting Owen Hastie from left midfield to left-centre back and it worked well, but Hibs were still forced to defend for most of he first half. Nantes captain Sacha Ziani miscued the best chance wide of target when more composure was required.

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There was a noticeable increase in intensity about the home team after the break. Scotland Under-17 international Rudi Molotnikov, one of two changes made by Kean, passed up a golden opportunity with his first involvement after O’Connor’s driving run. O’Connor stung the palms of the goalkeeper and man of the match Murray Aiken shaved the bar before Laidlaw made the decisive breakthrough. The goalscorer then laid one on a plate for O’Connor after a mazy run down the left, only for the goalkeeper to save well from point-blank range and keep his team well in the tie.

Hibernian U19s: Murray Johnson; Josh McCulloch (Rudi Allan-Molotnikov 45), Kanayochukwu Megwa, Owen Hastie; Jacob Blaney, Robbie Hamilton, Murray Aiken, Oscar Macintyre; Malik Zaid (Jacob Macintyre 45); Josh O'Connor (Josh Landers 89), Ethan Laidlaw. Subs not used: Freddie Owens, Adam Khan, Reece Holden, Ricky Waugh.