Intertoto gamble fails to pay off for Hibees

HIBS’ participation in the Intertoto Cup was always going to be a gamble and in Vilnius it backfired in bizarre fashion.

The decision of the Hibs board to enter the team into the quirky competition could potentially have yielded a UEFA Cup place - losing to a freak goal against a lower-ranking Lithuanian side was not in the script.

You have to feel sorry for new manager Tony Mowbray. The Englishman had only two weeks of pre-season training with his players before being plunged into competitive action and the lack of fitness and depth in the squad told over the two legs.

The first clash at Easter Road was played in farcical conditions after a thunderstorm flooded the Easter Road pitch. A 1-1 draw was no disaster in the first leg but the Hibees never struck up any rhythm in the Zalgiris Stadium.

Despite being allowed the bulk of possession by a Vetra team content to sit on the cushion of the away goal, soak up pressure and hit on the counter attack, Hibs huffed and puffed and squandered what few chances they could create.

They were finally condemned 17 minutes from the end when Nerijus Vasiliauskas diverted the ball over the line after young keeper Alistair Brown had failed to deal with a Julius Raliukonis shot which had spun up off the legs of Steven Whittaker and into the air.

Mowbray put a brave face on after the match, claiming the tie had been primarily about gaining match fitness.

However, the Hibees did not start their pre-season a fortnight early to fall at the first hurdle and the manager himself had stated openly that he was striving for the additional two competitive matches which would have come with progress to the third round.

Instead it will be Vetra who take on Esbjerg over the next couple of weekends, with the Danes having gained a surprise 2-1 aggregate victory over French club Nice in their own tie.

Mowbray said: "The main reason we are out is because this game has come so early in our preparations.

"Even the big teams like Manchester United and Liverpool lose to sides you would expect them to beat at this time of year so it’s understandable.

"I’m not saying we’d beat them nine times out of ten but if we were to play this game at Christmas I think you’d see a different outcome."

Mowbray has not yet had time to properly shape this side and he remains in the process of assessing those players available to him.

The return of club skipper Ian Murray, last season’s top scorer Derek Riordan and midfielder Kevin Thomson will strengthen his hand but he will also want to add some new signings.

Simon Brown was his first recruit, but the former Colchester goalkeeper missed both legs with a bruised foot.

Teenage striker Sam Morrow was handed a three-year deal on Friday after initially moving from Ipswich to the Capital on a short-term deal and with fellow under-21 internationalist Dean Shields also on board after joining from Arsenal, Mowbray’s squad is now top-heavy with young strikers.

Morrow partnered Garry O’Connor on Saturday and the duo failed to strike up any real understanding as they battled against a stodgy defence.

Still, both could have netted the opener in the first minute. Alen Orman charged down full-back Zilvinas Zudys’ clearance on the left-hand edge of the penalty area and the ball broke to Morrow, whose shot was blocked by Marius Poskus.

O’Connor picked up the rebound but from an angle was too deliberate with his shot which lacked power, allowing the keeper to save for a second time.

It was a shame Brown was so culpable for the Vetra winner because otherwise, the 18-year-old had an impressive game.

As the Lithuanians broke in the 16th minute, Darvydas Sernas crossed to the back post where Vasiliauskas planted a firm header towards the bottom corner.

Brown was equal to the effort, though, leaping to his right to push the ball wide.

He also produced a spectacular save near the end to keep his side in the tie, throwing himself high to his left to turn an effort from Nerijus Sasnauskas over the bar. The save was top drawer material as Mowbray acknowledged. He said: "Alistair made an excellent save near the end when the ball look destined for the top corner so he shouldn’t be too hard on himself.

"Alistair’s obviously disappointed with the goal but it was a bit of a freak. There’s no way I’m going to apportion blame.

"The main thing for me will be to see how he bounces back from this. He’s a talented young goalkeeper and he’ll get all the support he needs from everyone at the club.

"We had chances at the other end and didn’t take them and I’m more disappointed about that."

Kevin Nicol’s miss at the death would have been particularly frustrating for Mowbray. As the Hibees pushed forward to try and nick the goal which would have taken the game into extra-time, substitute Tam McManus fired in a deep cross from the right. Morrow pulled the ball down at the back post and laid it back to the midfielder who blazed his shot over, despite having plenty of time to pick his spot from 12 yards.

Other than that, there weren’t too many clear-cut chances. Orman’s improvisation from an O’Connor knock-down nearly brought a spectacular opener in the first half but his overhead kick was tipped over by Poskus.

Gary Caldwell, Scott Brown and Stephen Dobbie also tried their luck but were unable to properly test the Lithuanian keeper.

With the SPL kick-off still the best part of a month away, Mowbray will now attempt to arrange a few additional friendly matches.

He will also be looking to make a few more signings with left-back a confirmed priority.

He added: "Over the two games I’ve learned a lot about the players and what they can do. I’ve been saying that we need new players.

"It’s my job to assess what we have and what we need and I’ll keep working on that front."