Hughes says Europa League group stage is Hibs' target

HIBS boss John Hughes today insisted the lucrative Europa League group stage isn't beyond his Easter Road side – with a bit of luck.

Hughes' players will enter the competition at the third qualifying round with their first match to be played on 29 July, more than a fortnight before the SPL season kicks off.

They will, however, be seeded meaning they'll miss Euro giants such as Liverpool and Juventus and the likes of Sporting Lisbon, Galatasaray, VFB Stuttgart and AZ Alkmaar, when the draw is made on 16 July.

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If they can negotiate their way past whoever their opponents may prove to be, they'd then be just one round away from the group stages which would result in six more European matches.

And that, Hughes, declared today, was his goal although he acknowledged his side face a tough challenge if they are to achieve his target.

He said: "I am serious, I want to get into the group stages. You are looking for the luck of the draw and I know none of the clubs in the competition will prove to be mugs.

"I don't think being seeded will make that much of a difference, the most important thing was getting that fourth place in the SPL table which means we have two rounds before the groups stages rather than three.

"We have to be realistic but I am quietly confident that, if we get the luck of the draw, then we have the players that can maybe take us to there, that's the challenge.

"Why should we settle for second best?"

By that time Hughes will hope to have new faces in his squad although the Hibs manager has resolutely refused to comment on speculation such as that linking him with Falkirk midfielder Burton O'Brien.

The 29-year-old certainly has the experience Hughes has admitted he's seeking and knows the former St Mirren, Blackburn Rovers and Livingston player well having signed him for the Bairns two years ago.

O'Brien made 67 appearances in two years for Falkirk but is free to speak to other clubs following the Bairns' relegation to the First Division despite having another year to run on his contract.