HIBS ace Tom Taiwo has claimed Malmo are showing signs of battle fatigue ahead of tonight’s Europa League clash, with the Swedish stars admitting their hectic match schedule is taking its toll.
Malmo went top of the Allsvenskan with a 4-0 win over Atvidaberg at the weekend, but face their fifth match in just 15 days in this second round qualifying tie, leading forward Magnus Eriksson to reveal he was suffering from tiredness.
The fact they are halfway though their season, having played 16 League matches plus the double-header against Irish side Drogheda, which earned the right to take on Pat Fenlon’s men, has been seen as a distinct advantage, with Hibs yet to taste competitive action.
Malmo boss Rikard Norling rested key players on Sunday with tonight’s match in mind, South African striker Tokelo Rantie and midfielder Markus Halsti, a Finnish internationalist, starting the match on the bench. He said: “It was important for us to rotate the squad because there are so many games for us just now.”
Although the Swedes remain favourites, Taiwo believes they could be feeling the strain. He said: “They are halfway through their season and will have a bit of momentum but they’ve played a lot of matches.
“I’d imagine that, as in any championship, it’s a tough haul and it does take its toll on you as we saw ourselves last season when our form dipped after a very good start. There’s a little bit of fatigue that creeps in and playing five matches in a short space of time is difficult.
“I’d think Malmo are pretty much in the same position as ourselves. They won’t have a massive squad, so they’ll be unable to rotate their squad to any great degree, although they did rest a couple at the weekend.”
Although Hibs have yet to be tested, former Leeds United, Chelsea and Carlisle United star Taiwo claimed there is a “freshness” about Fenlon’s squad with the players close to full match fitness following their pre-season preparations in which they played four matches.
There is, however, a distinct lack of European experience within Hibs’ ranks. Kevin Thomson is the only player with any great knowledge of what it takes at this level, thanks to his time with Rangers, when he played in the Champions League and enjoyed a run to the final of the UEFA Cup.
Otherwise, only Paul Hanlon remains from the Hibs side which faced Slovenian outfit Maribor three years ago, while new boy Liam Craig has limited experience having played in Europe with St Johnstone last season. His fellow summer arrival in the middle of the park, Owain Tudur Jones, has also faced continental opposition – but many years ago as his career was kicking off with Welsh minnows Bangor City.
“It is a step into the unknown for most of us,” conceded Taiwo, “It will be our first time in Europe, but it is something we are all looking forward to, a brand new experience playing against foreign opposition on their own turf.
“But I’d say we are looking sharp at the moment, there’s a freshness and an eagerness about the boys who are also looking to claim a place in the starting line-up when the new season gets underway against Motherwell.”
If Hibs were to fail over the two legs – the second takes place at Easter Road a week tonight – it won’t be through lack of preparation.
Chief scout Dave Henderson was dispatched to watch Malmo draw the first leg of their tie against Drogheda in Dublin, with Fenlon joining him for the second match in Sweden, leaving Henderson behind to take in the Allsvenskan clash with Atvidaberg.
Since then Taiwo and his team-mates have been poring over DVDs of their opponents in action, identifying their strengths and weaknesses and devising a game plan.
He said: “I think for any game, whether it’s in the SPL, a cup or Europe you seek to gain as much information as you can about the opposition. You want any advantage you can get.
“Thanks to the internet you can even get games going back a few years but the manager’s preparation has been meticulous as we’ve seen by the number of times he’s had Malmo watched over the past couple of weeks, seeing them home and away in Europe and in their own domestic league.
“We’ve sat down as a squad this week and gone over what we can expect. Without giving too much away it’s getting to know their players, their strengths and weaknesses as individuals and as a team so, hopefully, there will be no surprises on the night.
“We do it together. You never know what might happen in a game. You might find a defender being pushed into midfield or a striker asked to drop back, either tactically or through an injury, so we all have to be ready to do what is asked of us
“It’s also important to understand each other’s role so if someone isn’t quite doing what’s been asked you can put him right. It’s a team game and we all need to know exactly what each other is doing, from the first second to the last.”
While Hibs have enjoyed the “luxury” of an extended look at their opponents, Malmo have little first-hand knowledge of Fenlon’s players, Swedish coach Jonnie Feder dispatched to take in last Friday’s final warm-up match against Raith Rovers.
Fenlon admitted his side had looked “flat” having endured another tough week on the training ground with double sessions daily, but Taiwo admitted he was hoping Feder had departed with a false impression of Hibs’ capabilities.
The signing of Thomson and former St Johnstone hitman Rowan Vine followed that match, giving Norling and his backroom staff a further headache as they ponder Fenlon’s intentions regarding team selection, formation and tactics.
Taiwo said: “We didn’t play well against Raith, but we’ve had a tough pre-season, we’ve crammed a lot – fitness, tactics, team ethics and so on – into three-and-a-half weeks. We are quietly confident, we’ve gone into Malmo in great depth and we know that while they eventually beat Drogheda 2-0 it was a real test for them and they were only able to breath easily deep into added-on time at the end of the second leg.
“I’d imagine Malmo will have gone back to last season and possibly beyond to look at Hibs matches, but the squad has changed again since even the [Scottish Cup] final at the end of May so that will make things a bit more difficult for them in terms of preparation, while the arrival of Kevin and Rowan in the last few days adds more experience.
“We are looking to improve the squad again for the coming season, the manager has made some good signings as we look to do better in some areas in which we weren’t so good last season.
“Obviously we’re going into two tough matches against Malmo, but it is important we give a good account of ourselves in both matches. I don’t think we can start talking about what would be a good result, you can’t plan for a 0-0 draw, a win or whatever, but to score an away goal would be a massive positive. But the one thing we want to make sure is we get them back to Easter Road with something to fight for and to have the place bouncing.”