Neil Lennon insists a resurgent Molde will represent a considerable step up in class for his players as he described tonight’s trip to the Aker Stadium as the most significant fixture of his reign at Easter Road.
However, the Northern Irishman is adamant his side can prevail from a fraught, “50-50” encounter on the scenic Norwegian coast.
The capital club were the better side in Edinburgh – certainly in terms of clear-cut chances – by some distance, with Stevie Mallan striking the bar and visiting goalkeeper Andreas Linde inspired.
However, they simply could not find a way past the Norwegians and will take to the field tonight with the tie delicately balanced at 0-0.
The victors face Zenit Saint Petersburg or, more likely given their 4-0 win in Belarus, Dinamo Minsk for a place in the Europa League group phase.
Despite a rather meek showing in Scotland, Molde – emboldened by the return of Erling Braut Haaland to attack – appear to have found their groove, hammering league leaders Brann 5-1 on Sunday.
Lennon acknowledges that facing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men on their own patch will be a tougher task than any posed by Runavik or Asteras Tripolis in previous rounds – even if Celtic’s travails illustrated that the favourites’ tag can be deceiving.
“Are they beatable? Yes they are. All teams are beatable, even Celtic,” he said, in reference to his old club’s disappointing defeat at the hands of AEK Athens.
“Molde will try to take the game to us and, at this stage of the competition, it’s a big step up in class. We will have to be patient and maybe rely on our goalkeeper to make saves – as theirs did in Edinburgh.
“I think it’s 50-50. Obviously with Molde being at home they have a slight edge but they are on the cusp of if we score they need to get two. And we are capable of scoring. We have tidied up defensively in recent weeks and we always seem to create chances.
“I wasn’t surprised with what I saw from Molde in Edinburgh. They were fit, as they are midway through their season, they are technically very good and have pace in their team. Their rotation was excellent in midfield.
“They are a very slick outfit, as I said before the first leg, and nothing changed my mind. It’s a very stiff test and we have to be fully on our guard and fully concentrated to the threat they will bring.”
Despite a proud European heritage, including being Britain’s maiden representatives on the continent and semi-finalists in the European Cup and Fairs Cup during the glory days of the 1950s and 1960s, the Edinburgh club have never won three successive ties in a single season.
It means Lennon’s men can make history tonight – and he has no desire to downplay the scale of the encounter.
“In terms of the magnitude of what is in front of us, this is the biggest game of my Hibs career,” he continued. “This is European football and we are one game away from the play-offs.
“We have had big games domestically, getting promotion and we had a great season last year in the Premiership.
“We’ve even had a couple of semi-finals along the way. But in terms of the profile of Hibs, and where we want to take this team, then tonight’s game is big.”
Inside Molde’s stadium, which is nestled across the water from 222 stunning snow-clad peaks, it will be the hosts left with a mountain to climb should Lennon’s side claim an all-important away goal.
And in Martin Boyle, he believes he has the man to breach their back-line.
The flying winger has been irrepressible this season and Lennon reckons he still does not get the attention his displays merit. That, he contends, will all change if Hibs’ European adventure continues – to the point where Scotland manager Alex McLeish may just take notice.
“Martin was a squad player and has pushed himself forward and has got better every season,” said Lennon. “He’s a player at the top of his game and a real handful – and I’m glad he’s on our team. He’s as good as any winger in Scotland.
“When you see him in real flow then it gives us a real boost. He doesn’t get the recognition he deserves and is capable of playing at a higher level. I don’t know if he can be a Scotland player – but this European campaign will stand him in good stead for that. He’s gaining experience and was one of the best attacking players in the league last season.”
Meanwhile, Lennon has confirmed that goalkeeper Adam Bogdan will reclaim his place tonight after recovering from injury.