BEN WILLIAMS today insisted that Hibs’ hopes of Euro glory are far from over, but admitted Pat Fenlon’s side will have to be as clinical as Malmo if they are to overcome the Swedish outfit’s two-goal lead in Thursday night’s second leg.
Pat Fenlon’s side were stunned as the Swedes hit them with those quick-fire strikes within the space of three minutes with less than quarter of an hour gone in the Swedbank Stadion, leaving those fans behind Williams’ goal fearing the worse.
But while it was backs-to-the-wall at times as the Edinburgh club fought grimly to stay in the tie and earn the chance to face Swansea City in the third qualifying round, goalkeeper Williams believes that, despite the scoreline, he and his team-mates can approach the visit of Malmo with a degree of optimism.
Although Rikard Norling’s side were of the opinion they could have scored four or five goals, the Malmo boss highlighting the saves which Williams made from Magnus Eriksson, scorer of his team’s second goal, Tokelo Rantie, Miiko Albornoz and Jiloan Hamad, who had opened the scoring, in addition to a Simon Thern shot which crashed back off the crossbar, Williams pointed to the opportunities Hibs had which could have put an entirely different complexion on the outcome.
Summer signing Owain Tudur Jones got his 6ft 3in frame to Liam Craig’s free-kick, but with time and space powered his header over rather than into the net from six yards.
Malmo responded by hitting Hibs twice in quick succession before fellow new boy Rowan Vine saw a shot drift over the head of the home team’s goalkeeper Johan Dahlin but strike the post, so denying the Capital club a vital away goal.
Williams said: “We’re disappointed that we didn’t score. We deserved to come away with at least a goal.
“I’m not saying we should have got a draw or a win, but we should have got an away goal.
“Rowan hit the post and Owain had a good chance. Owain is disappointed, but it’s one of those things. He’s one of the biggest lads on the park and he had time and space.
“But he just got underneath the ball and it’s easily done. Unfortunately, these are the chances we have to take if we want to progress against quality sides.
“There are fine margins in football and when you are playing at this level, these margins matter.”
As was feared when the draw pitched Hibs against a side halfway through their own domestic season before Pat Fenlon’s team had even kicked a ball in anger – Malmo’s 16th match took them to the top of the Allsvenskan – the superior match fitness of the Swedes told for long spells as, buoyed by those two goals, they threatened to overwhelm the visitors.
Williams agreed with that assessment, but admitted the clinical finishing of the Swedes had to be admired. HamAD and Eriksson gave him no chance of saving their efforts.
The Malmo skipper delivered a stunning free-kick after James McPake was ruled to have caught Rantie as he raced clear, the Hibs captain breathing a sigh of relief as Austrian referee flashed a yellow card in his face rather than red. From Hamad’s strike, the ball caught the underside of the bar before nestling in the net. Then Emil Forsberg danced his way through a couple of ineffectual challenges before cutting the ball back for Eriksson to slide it home.
While having no quibble over the quality of Malmo’s finishing, Williams claimed those “fine margins” were at work on both occasions. He said: “The match sharpness they had was the big difference but the way they took their goals was clinical. For the first one the guy has done well to get it up and over the wall, but it’s taken a nick of Jordon Forster’s head. It’s one of those where you are hoping it hits the bar and comes back out.
“For the second, their player was in the right place at the right time and he managed to squeeze it through the legs of Jordon as he slid in. Those are the margins by which you live or die.”
Williams admitted he feared the worst as he turned to see the big screen behind him indicate Hibs two goals down and with just 13 minutes on the clock, but insisted Fenlon’s players deserved credit for the way they hung in even if he had a busy night of it as he brought off save after save.
He said: “It was a good game for me and I was happy with my performance. Obviously I am disappointed to have conceded two goals, but it’s a team game and it is over two legs so it was important to keep the score down. I was in the right place at the right time a few times.
“When you concede two goals in quick succession you have to be careful or the tie is going to get away from you, but I thought the boys rallied round well, particularly in the second half. There were a few tired legs out there but we were still pressing to get a goal in the last ten minutes and I felt there were a lot of positives we could take from the game.”
Malmo remain firm favourites to progress, with the Swedes quietly confident they can get that away goal which will kill the tie off at Easter Road, and Williams admitted he’d been impressed by their stylish football. He said: “Malmo are very comfortable on the ball. They have tricky wingers and you could tell they are 16 games into their season. They are not like at home where wingers will race down the line and whip in a cross, they are patient and knock the ball about well.”
But while he and his team-mates face an obvious uphill struggle, Williams remained defiant saying: “If we start well and get an early goal it will change everything. It’s far from over. They were clinical in taking their goals and if we want to progress against a quality side then that’s what we have to be.”