Neil Lennon’s side had effectively secured a tie against Greek outfit Asteras Tripolis by hammering NSI Runavik 6-1 a week ago in Edinburgh and they could hardly have dreamed of anything more than another stroll against a side which had provided such poor opposition.
But they found this second leg in this North Atlantic outpost a much tougher proposition, going two goals down within five minutes as the Faroese part-timers began to sense a memorable upset might just be on the cards.
Although Hibs eventually ran out winners again, it was a less-than-convincing performance in which they never managed to entirely shake off the home side for whom captain Klaemint Olsen led from the front with a well-taken hat-trick.
With Lennon banished to the stand in the surreal surroundings of Toftir’s cliff-top Svangaskard Stadium, his assistant Garry Parker could only look on impassively from the touchline in the first minute as Efe Ambrose sliced a low cross high into his own net before, five minutes later, Runavik skipper Klaemint Olsen slid in to beat goalkeeper Adam Bogdan and make it 2-0 to the hosts on the night.
Hibs slowly settled the nerves and John McGinn, restored to the side after missing the first leg through injury as he continues to find himself at the centre of a maelstrom of speculation as Celtic seek to entice him to Glasgow, narrowed the gap as he calmly fired the ball home.
And when Lewis Stevenson thundered a super shot high into the net of rookie Runavik goalkeeper Eli Joensen, pressed into action only minutes before kick-off as Tordur Thomsen picked up an injury, it looked as if Hibs had shaken off that early scare and would repeat the totally dominant performance of last week.
Runavik, however, had other ideas and Klaemint Olsen restored their lead, drilling a precise shot low into the corner of Bogdan’s net from 18 yards only for Hibs skipper David Gray to steal in at the back post on the stroke of half-time to meet McGinn’ deep free-kick to restore parity on the night and the Edinburgh club’s five-goal advantage overall.
As banks of fog drifted in, the Hibs players would no doubt have been thinking that at least they’d be spared a half-time rocket from Lennon, the terms of his ban extending to the home dressing-room.
Those opening 45 minutes were certainly not what the 200 or so Hibs fans who’d made the long journey north had anticipated but it shouldn’t be forgotten that despite having failed to progress beyond the first qualifying round in 12 previous attempts, Runavik had beaten both Dinamo Tiblisi and Linfield and held Fulham to a 0-0 draw on their own plastic pitch.
Despite the comfortable cushion Hibs had brought with them, Lennon insisted he wanted his players to use this “dead rubber” to good effect, not only looking for that second win but in terms of match sharpness ahead of the tougher challenge that Asteras will undoubtedly present to their hopes of reaching the group stages.
With that in mind, Lennon fielded a strong side although he did make four changes to last week’s team, Paul Hanlon left behind to recover from a virus while Martin Boyle, who has been nursing a hamstring injury was rested as Vykintas Slivka and Darren McGregor dropped to the bench.
In came skipper David Gray, Marvin Bartley, Ryan Porteous and McGinn, his appearance meaning that even if Celtic eventually come up with the sort of cash Hibs are seeking for the Scotland midfielder, he’ll be ineligible to play in their European campaign until, and if, Brendan Rodgers’ side make the group stages of the Champions League.
The fog which had enveloped the ground became ever more dense as the second half got underway, but it was just possible to pick out Ambrose as he knocked home McGinn’s pass from close range to put Hibs ahead for the first time on the night.
It was, however, a short-lived lead, Klaemint Olsen latching onto a long ball to outstrip the Hibs defence, completing his hat-trick with an assured finish past the horribly-exposed Bogdan.
Lennon had described Hibs’ final game of last season, a 5-5 draw with Rangers as “absolutely bonkers” and this match was rapidly finding itself fitting into the same category, Mallan sending a sumptuous free-kick from 30 yards sailing into the top corner of Eli Joensen’s net with the goalkeeper reduced to no more than an interest spectator.
Mallan’s expertise from long range – the former St Mirren midfielder also got a couple last week – and his delivery from set-pieces were a major attraction for Lennon as he signed him from Barnsley and he delivered again to surely give Hibs victory, leaving Eli Joensen beaten all ends up with another eye-catching strike.
Untidy it may have been at times with questions marks against the quality of Hibs’ defending clearly evident but it was wonderful entertainment, ten goals – and a few memorable ones among them – with Hibs eventually running out 12-5 winners on aggregate. The scoreline was still a little bit short of their European record, a 12-3 win in two games against Norwegian outfit Rosenborg in 1975.
And, if Lennon learned one thing, there will have to be a marked improvement between this game and next Thursday when Asteras, a side which reached the group stages of the Europa League – the stated goal of the Hibs head coach – in successive seasosn recently, roll into town.
NSI Runavik (4-3-3): E Joensen, Ba Hansen, J Joensen, Langgaard, Heintze; M Olsen (B Hansen 71), F Benjaminsen, Justinussen; J Benjaminsen, K Olsen (J Mortensen 74), Knudsen. Unused subs: J Davidsen, Dalbud, Frederiksberg, M Mortensen.
Hibs (3-1-4-2): Bogdan; Ambrose, Porteous; Whittaker (Slivka 78), Bartley (Gullan 88); Gray, Mallan, McGinn, Stevenson; Kamberi, Shaw (Swanson 78). Unused subs: Laidlaw, McGregor, Martin, Mackie.
Referee: Luis Teixeira (Por).