HIBERNIAN left themselves with a fighting chance of progressing beyond the second qualifying round of the Europa League as they produced a battling, backs-to-the-wall performance to limit Swedish opponents Malmo to only two goals.
Scorers: Malmo - Hamad (10), Eriksson (12)
But the Easter Road outfit departed for home wondering just what might have been had the towering figure of Owain Tudur Jones managed to power his early header on target rather than over the bar. That miss was the harbinger of two quickfire goals for the home side.
Captain Joalin Hamad curled a stunning free kick beyond Ben Williams, who was left to pick the ball out of his net again just three minutes later as Magnus Eriksson turned home Emil Forsberg’s cutback.
The Edinburgh club were denied a vital away goal as debutant Rowan Vine, recently signed from St Johnstone, drifted a shot over Malmo goalkeeper Johan Dahlin only to see the ball clip the inside of the left hand post.
Thereafter, though, Pat Fenlon’s side had a string of stunning saves by Williams, a series of last-ditch tackles and the crossbar to thank for being able to face next Thursday’s return leg in the capital with at least a degree of hope
Hibs had arrived in Sweden written off by the bookmakers, their odds of 15/2 against an away win based on their lack of competitive action and facing a side already halfway through their season and buoyed by a 4-0 victory over Advidabergs at the weekend which had taken them clear at the top of the
Already without Tim Clancy as he recovers from a close-season operation, Fenlon’s
defensive options were limited further by the absence of Ryan McGivern thanks to a knee
injury sustained in their final warm-up match against Raith Rovers, in which Alex Harris sustained a thigh problem which relegated the winger to the role of substitute.
So Fenlon was forced to shuffle his pack, Lewis Stevenson in the unfamiliar role of right-back, while Paul Hanlon moved to the left flank as teenager Jordon Forster, who enjoyed an impressive end to last season, partnered captain James McPake in
The experience of ex-St Johnstone forward Vine, despite his distinct lack of match practice, earned him the nod ahead of the youthful exuberance of Ross Caldwell in that thankless role of lone striker against a Malmo side which contained no surprises despite the claim of one or two that they were suffering from fatigue ahead of this, their fifth match in just 15 days.
Hibs began with Kevin Thomson, their most experienced
European campaigner, sitting in front of the back four in a
4-1-4-1 formation, but the Edinburgh club carved out the first clear scoring opportunity, Liam Craig delivering an inch-perfect cross which found Tudur Jones all alone, but the 6ft 3in midfielder powered his header over when he should have sent the net bulging.
Hibs were made to pay as Malmo grabbed two goals in the space of just three devastating minutes. McPake could have counted himself lucky only to pick up a yellow card when, despite his protestations to the contrary, he was guilty of a tug on the South African striker Tokelo Rantie as he displayed the explosive pace which had been identified as a major threat to the visitors.
But the free kick awarded 20 yards out proved reward enough as Hamad sent a stunning effort spinning off the underside of the bar and into the net with Williams rooted to the spot.
Williams was again helpless as Emil Forsberg’s run on the left took him past a couple of ineffectual challenges before he cut the ball back for Eriksson to slide a low, left-footed shot past the goalkeeper.
The 600 or so Hibs fans seated behind him had offered a
vociferous response to their boisterous rivals at the opposite end of the ground but those two goals left them both stunned and silenced, fearing much worse to come.
However, Fenlon’s players steeled themselves and were unlucky not to claim an important away goal when Vine, with his back to goal, took Thomson’s pass 25 yards out before turning to drift a shot over the head of the startled Johan Dahlin only to see the ball clip the inside of the goalkeeper’s left-hand post.
The two-goal cushion enjoyed by the home side, though, allowed them to dictate the pace of the game. Markus Halsti forced Williams to throw himself to his right to push his shot away before that combination of Forsberg and Eriksson almost engineered an idential goal to Malmo’s second. On this occasion, Williams’ outstretched boot was enough to divert the ball over. Williams again kept Hibs in the game – and the tie – when he pulled off a tremendous stop to prevent Rantie adding to Malmo’s tally within a minute of the restart and then reacted quickly to grab Miiko Albornoz’s effort from a tight angle seconds later.
Malmo, however, were determined to help themselves to a killer third goal and Williams again defied them as Hamad met Ricardhino’s cross from the left, only to see the Hibs goalkeeper get a firm fist to his shot.
The signs were becoming ominous for Hibs as they were hit by wave after wave of light blue shirts. Simon Thern, the son of former Rangers star Jonas, slipped Rantie in again, but this time Thomson was the saviour as he threw himself into the tackle. Thern himself then turned Tom Taiwo before firing a rising shot off the crossbar.
Hibs had virtually no answer to Malmo’s ability to attack at pace down either flank before picking out the runs of team-mates with clever low crosses rather than simply knocking the ball into the area.
Malmo: Dahlin, Albornoz, Jansson, Johansson, Ricardinho, Hamad, Halsti, Thern (Friberg 67), Forsberg, Eriksson, Rantie (Cibicki 67). Subs not used: Olsen, Kroon, Helander, Fadi, Konate.
Hibernian: Williams, Stevenson, McPake, Forster, Hanlon, Handling, Taiwo, Tudur Jones (Robertson 55), Thomson (Harris 77), Craig, Vine (Caldwell 84). Subs not used: Murdoch, Cairney, Mullen, Horribine.