A wild night in Athens marked Hibs’ return to the European stage, a night that was not without heartache. With no away goal by way of compensation, the two-goal defeat represents a formidable challenge for Alex McLeish’s side to overcome in Edinburgh next Thursday, although a first half in which Hibs capably smothered AEK certainly offers some hope.
It is in attack that Hibs must seek to add more to their game, with Craig Brewster failing to mark his return to Greece with the goal that would have afforded the tie a rather different complexion. Indeed, it was his second-half replacement, David Zitelli, who came closest to a priceless goal, his angled shot after having been fed by Ulises De la Cruz saved at the near post by Elias Atmatsidis with just eight minutes remaining.
A penalty from Vassilis Tsartas and a header by Demis Nikolaidis had already speared Hibs on a night which proved the truth about Greece being preferable as a holiday rather than football destination.
Hibs had waited nine years for this so one more week - the game having been postponed last Thursday in the wake of the attacks on the United States - was not going to douse the enthusiasm of those fans who made the journey to Athens. One shot of news did act as a sobering bolt for the faithful, tucked into a corner of the Nikos Goumas stadium.
Captain Franck Sauzee did not even make the squad, having injured a heel in the previous game against Dunfermline, with Ian Murray promoted to the starting line-up.
It was not what Alex McLeish’s side needed, with Sauzee the one player most comfortable in the type of surroundings in which Hibs found themselves last night. Intimidating isn’t the word, though disrespectful most definitely is. The minute’s silence before kick-off in memory of those murdered in the recent terrorist atrocities was sabotaged by those wild incumbents of the notorious skepasti - "the covered ones" - end of the stadium, who whistled and jeered throughout, and then burnt the stars and stripes for good measure.
You wonder what the Toronto branch of the AEK fan club, seated beneath a Canadian flag at the opposite end, thought of that performance. One crazed fan had clambered up to the top of a 30-foot fence in order to set fire to the stars and stripes, and was still hanging there as the game kicked off. This was no Saturday at East End Park, be very clear about that. The balmy conditions were, it seemed, robbing many of their faculties, and some of their humanity.
You feared for a Hibs side shorn of the calming influence of Sauzee, and thrust into an environment so alien to many of their players. The one ace in their pack was Craig Brewster, who knew this stadium well as an Ionikos player, and who predictably enough was marked out for a special welcome by the AEK fans, and also by Karlos Gamarra, who became his shadow for the night.
Brewster was left to forage up front alongside Tom McManus, with the packed AEK defence giving little away. Despite the hectic atmosphere, the game began in an almost pedestrian manner, with Hibs content to contain AEK while they themselves settled into the evening.
The first incident of any note did not come just after the quarter of an hour mark, when Vassilis Tsartas, the man McLeish had earmarked as a danger, swivelled to make room for a shot from 25 yards.
The effort contained pace, but not quite enough precision, and the ball bounded just wide of a post. Nick Colgan was not called upon to make a save of any note until the 27th minute, when former Leicester player Theodoros Zagorakis tried an effort from sililarly long range, but it’s trajectory was too straight. Colgon did initially spill it, but no-one was close enough to take advantage.
With the half nearing an end, Hibs found their nerve, and began probing the AEK box. Their cause was not helped by a referee who was intent on penalising the away side every time a player challenged for a high ball, with Brewster particularly unfortunate to be pulled up after rising to meet a Ulises De la Cruz cross. His subsequent protest stirred the skepasti back into action, with a song, presumably cruel in nature, being tossed his way.
Still, it was a measure of AEK’s impotence in attack that the skepasti - all but full an hour and a half before kick-off - even needed rousing. Hibs were successfully smothering the Greek side’s strikers, with the lauded Nikolaidis finding that even without Sauzee, the Hibs defence was providing stiff enough resistance. McLeish’s half-time talk would hardy have required much thought, with more of the same surely the cry as the players left the dressing room. His opposite number Fernando Santos clearly needed longer to articulate his feelings, and the Hibs players were forced to linger in their half while the AEK team emerged from the dressing room, with Vassilis Lakis replacing Christos Maladenis.
Perhaps Hibs’ promptness came from a desire not to lose the rhythm of the first half, although this was always going to prove difficult with AEK in desperate search of at least one goal to take to Leith next week.
With only nine minutes of the second half having elapsed, they gained the advantage, after Ulrik Laursen’s trip on Nikos Georgeas as the full back sped into the box. The subsequent penalty was dispatched by Tsartas, a goal marked by at least a dozen flares.
Nikolaidis gave cause for further explosions just 11 minutes later, bulleting a close range header into the net after a cross from Konstantinidis. Paco Luna had already replaced McManus, but now Hibs’ need for a goal had intensified, and Brewster made way for David Zitelli, but to no avail.
AEK Athens: Atmatsidis, Georgeas, Gamarra, Ramos, Kasapis, Andreas-Vasileios Zikos, Zagorakis, Vassilis Tsartas, Maladenis, Konstantinidis, Demis Nikolaidis. Subs: Chiotis, Kostenoglou, Kappos, Mielcarski, Lakis, Kola.
Hibernian: Hibernian: Colgan, De la Cruz, Fenwick, Smith, Laursen, Murray, O’Neil, Jack, Orman, Brewster, McManus. Subs: Caig, Luna, Brebner, Townsley, Andrews, Smart, Zitelli.