Hibs’ Europa League adventure has proved to be a goal-fest with an astonishing 22 scored in their three games to date, but skipper David Gray happily admitted he’d settle for another dozen if it means the Easter Road club remain in the competition.
Neil Lennon’s players ravelled to Greece today for the return leg of their second qualifying-round tie holding a slight advantage over Asteras Tripolis following the first leg in Edinburgh last Thursday.
As things stand a 1-0 win for the Greeks would see them move into a probable third qualifying-round double-header against Molde of Norway.
But, insisted Gray, having already scored 15 goals, he and his team-mates have made the journey confident that they can again find the net, the only question possibly being, can they keep Asteras out at the other end. Gray conceded that losing seven goals in those three matches, including five against NSI Runavik, the part-timers from the Faroe Islands, had been the one disappointment although that was mitigated by Hibs’ thrilling second-half fight back against Asteras, Lennon’s players being two down at half-time only to leave the Greeks reeling as Efe Ambrose, Gray himself and Flo Kamberi earned what had appeared an unlikely victory.
“We’ve give ourselves a chance,” he claimed, “Especially the manner of the comeback. We created a lot of chances, scored some right good goals and could have had a couple more so we are going there with confidence.
“We have players with pace who can hurt teams and score goals. We’re going there with confidence but fully aware of the dangers.
“There’s no doubt we’ve conceded too many in the last three European games, but we’ve been working hard in training to rectify it, starting to defend from the front.
“On Thursday night the first one was a wonder strike from 30 yards but we know we could have done better for the first one. But other than that I felt we were pretty solid.
“The goal we lost in the first leg against Runavik was a deflected free-kick, but we know we are capable of doing better.
“Being a defender myself, we pride ourselves on clean sheets and organisation.
“The good thing is the chances we are creating. We can really hurt teams and over the last couple of seasons we haven’t tended to draw a blank.
“The objective this week has to be tightening up at the back but also knowing we will be a threat going forward.”
Asked of his own expectations as to what Thursday night might hold, Gray said: “To be honest, I’ll be happy if it ends up 6-6 and we go through. Likewise if it’s 0-0, I’ll take that as long as we go through. I’m sure the manager would rather take a 1-0 win or a 0-0 draw and a boring game.”
Gray has proved to be something of a goal threat on such nights having scored in all three Europa League games he’s featured in for Hibs, the winner against Brondby in Copenhagen two years ago, away to Runavik having been an unused substitute in the home leg and then the equaliser the other night, setting up Kamberi for that dramatic injury-time winner.
He said: “I’m enjoying it. It’s great to score goals and I enjoy the challenge of playing in Europe, of having to travel away.
“The football and tempo is different to Scotland. I’ve been playing right wing-back so I’ve been concentrating on getting in at the back post and causing a bit of mayhem there and that has happened.
“The last few games I’ve been fortunate to pop up with a goal or two I hope people are not expecting me to be as prolific or expecting a hat-trick this week. I’ll happily swap a goal for a clean sheet.”
Although Asteras’ Theodorus Kolokotronis Stadium holds little more than 7000 supporters, Gray is expecting the home fans will turn up the heat even in the cool of the evening, the match kicking off at 9pm local time.
He said: “I’m expecting it to be hot and hostile. The climate will be different so the tempo will be slower. Hopefully we can make a good start and get into the game.
“If there is a hostile crowd them hopefully we can try to quieten them down a bit. I’m sure there will be a fair few Hibs boys enjoying a few days in Greece and we want to send them home happy.
“We’ve played in a few hostile environments. People talk about playing abroad, but it’s pretty hostile at Tynecastle to be honest.
“It’s the same at Ibrox on a midweek night. We’re well used to going away to big games and dealing with the big occasions.
“We’ve had a taste of it. It’s about what we do and you can’t allow the atmosphere to affect you. That’s the most important thing but a lot of the boys have played in big derby games, gone to Celtic and Rangers, and had success in these environments.
“We know we are capable of handling it and getting a result over there.”
Gray was also aware that some of the Asteras players may be even more physical than in the first leg in which central defender Triantafyllos Pasalidis was sent off seven minutes from time after picking up a second yellow card from Swedish referee Andreas Akberg, the sending off ruling him out of Thursday night.
He said: “They were physical but we have three big guys at the back who thrive on that sort of challenge. And if it turns into a sort of fight then we have enough players will relish it.
“I’m sure they will have a right go at us but we will be dangerous. It’s set up to be a great tie.”
The trip to Greece will also present Gray and his team-mates with another problem they’ve not encountered before, the Hibs squad due to return to Edinburgh directly after the match, meaning they won’t arrive home until the early hours of Friday morning, giving them barely 48 hours to prepare for the opening game of the new Premiership season, at home to Motherwell on Sunday.
He said: “It’ll be a bit different going into the league game after Europe but preparation will be the key and resting up.
“Sunday will be a big game, but at the moment the focus is on Thursday and a challenge we are looking forward to.”