Jonatan JOHANSSON today revealed the lack of competitive edge could be Hibs’ biggest danger as Pat Fenlon’s side prepare to open their season with a tough Europa League match away to Swedish League leaders Malmo tomorrow.
While Fenlon’s players have enjoyed just four warm-up matches, the last of them a disappointing performance as they drew 0-0 with First Division Raith Rovers, Malmo are halfway through their season, their 16th league outing resulting in a 4-0 win against Atvidabergs FF on Sunday, which pushed them a point clear at the top of the Allsvenskan.
In addition, Rikard Norling’s players have had the benefit of a double-header against Irish club Drogheda, winning the first qualifying round thanks to a 2-0 home win following a no-scoring draw in Dublin. Furthermore, the team considered the biggest in their country played five pre-season matches, the first two of them in the United States against DC United and New York Red Bulls, while a mid-season friendly with German side Schalke 04 also featured in their programme.
It is those statistics which force Johansson, who spent two-and-a-half years with Malmo before being persuaded by then Hibs boss Mixu Paatelainen to make the move to Edinburgh, to fear for the Easter Road outfit’s chances.
Recalling how Paatelainen’s side failed to overcome a similar problem when drawn against another Swedish club, Elfsborg, in the InterToto Cup almost exactly five years ago, Johansson said: “It’s a huge advantage for Malmo to have played as many competitive matches. They are halfway through their season and have gone top of the league, which is pretty decent when you consider they sell one or two players every year.
“Hibs, on the other hand, haven’t had a competitive match at all. Of course, they have played pre-season friendlies as every club does, but we also know that no matter how many of these sort of games you play you never get the same out of them as competitive matches.
“It was difficult for Hibs when they played Elfsborg a few years ago. Hibs were again starting back early – even earlier than this summer – only to find themselves coming up against a team which had been playing hard, competitive football for months and I think it showed, as they won both legs 2-0.”
In fact, Malmo have played so many games recently that Norling rested two of his star players for the clash with Atvidabergs. Finnish internationalist Markus Halsti and South African striker Tokelo Rantie, the normal partner for Magnus Eriksson in attack, started the match on the bench, but, perhaps ominously for Hibs, introduced to the game when their side led by a single goal to see three more scored.
Norling admitted afterwards he’d done so with half an eye on the visit of Hibs, saying: “It was important for us to rotate the players because there are so many games for us just now. Rantie played just 30 minutes against Atvidabergs and should be at his best against Hibernian. He is so explosive and fast and we need that.”
Having trained all his energies on beating Drogheda, Norling dispatched coach Jonnie Feder to spy on Hibs’ final warm-up match, although Fenlon believes he departed with – he hopes – little more than a sketchy idea of Hibs’ capabilities. The Capital club are clued up on the Swedish side, as chief scout Dave Henderson has witnessed their past three matches in the flesh, with the Easter Road boss joining him in Malmo for the second leg against Drogheda.
Johansson believes that could help redress the balance, pointing out that even studying videos of Hibs in action last season will prove less than satisfactory for Norling, given Fenlon has introduced new faces over the summer in Liam Craig, Owain Tudur Jones and Rowan Vine, while Kevin Thomson has signed on for another season.
The former Finnish internationalist, who saw Hibs’ first pre-season friendly at Dumbarton, said: “Hibs have changed a lot from last season, while Malmo haven’t played a British team for a while. Many of the players won’t know what to expect.”
Having said that, Malmo knocked Rangers out of the Champions League two years ago, winning 1-0 at Ibrox before drawing 1-1 at home with Jiloan Hamad, now captain of the side, cancelling out Nikica Jelavic’s opener that night. Brazilian defender Ricardinho and Ivo Pekalski also remain from that team.
Otherwise, there have been many changes in personnel at the Swedbank Stadion, as there have at Easter Road, with Malmo sharing the same philosophy as Hibs in aiming to nurture as many of their own stars as possible, with Paris St Germain and Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic the most famous export of them all.
Johansson, now Under-20s coach at Motherwell, said: “Malmo have always had a fantastic reputation for producing excellent young players, guys such as Robert Prytz, Jonas Thern and Martin Dahlin, although Ibrahimovic is probably the biggest of them all. They’ve had many players move abroad to the likes of the Bundesliga.
“Their current squad is very young, but, as when I went there with Jari Litmanen, they mix them up with some older heads. They have a great set-up and always have youngsters coming through. That’s something they’ve done very successfully, just like Hibs.
“Malmo also have a great tradition of playing in European competition – they remain the only Swedish club to have reached the final of what was then the European Cup [against Nottingham Forest in 1979]. You also find most of the people who work in and around the club are ex-players, some even stretching back to that Forest match, which brings a wealth of experience.”
Johansson admits he was pleasantly surprised when he made his move from the English Premiership and Charlton Athletic to Sweden, the former Rangers forward saying: “I thought I was taking a step down, but it is a very big club.
“The current England manager, Roy Hodgson, put them on a different level when he was in charge there and now they are the biggest club in Sweden, envied by the rest of the country. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I was named player of the year in my first season when we should have gone on and won the league, while I also got myself back into the international squad with Finland.
“Malmo itself is a fantastic football city. Their support is a bit special, so, along with the Hibs fans going to Sweden, it should be a fantastic atmosphere in what is a pretty new stadium, one built after I left for Hibs.
“It is going to be tough for Hibs. Malmo have quick and totally match-fit players, but it is important they come away with a decent result. If they lose a goal, they’ve got to try to ensure they don’t lose another. The tie against Elfsborg was over after the first leg in Edinburgh, while, again, when Hibs played Maribor, the fact they lost 3-0 in Slovenia made the return leg a formality. However, I still keep in close touch with a few people at Malmo and from speaking to them, I know they felt they were lucky to get away with a 0-0 draw against Drogheda in Ireland, while they were only 1-0 ahead until the last minute in the second leg at home.
“It’s the sort of lead that is dangerous because one slip, one mistake, one piece of magic and the opposition get that vital away goal and go through.”
Johansson is clearly torn, given his split loyalties, even if, as he freely admits, his time in Edinburgh was nowhere near as successful as that in Malmo. He made the move back to Scotland having been pursued for months by countryman Paatelainen, arriving after his contract at Malmo came to an end, but unable to play for a few months until the winter transfer window opened.
He said: “Mixu chased me long and hard, but, looking back, I maybe should have done a bit more research. Malmo did not want to lose me and wouldn’t let me leave until their season had come to an end.
“I had an injury and there was too long until the transfer window opened. My career at Hibs was not as good on the pitch as I had hoped, but I really enjoyed working at the club.”