The transfer merry-go-round is well and truly underway at Easter Road. Dylan McGeouch has followed…
Hibernian’s season will begin on Thursday evening when they host opposition from the Faroe Islands in the form of NSI Runavik. The draw looks as if it’s been kind to Hibs and should give Neil Lennon’s side a good chance of progressing to the next round. After all, this is a Runavik side that have only won two European fixtures in their history – a 1-0 win over Dinamo Tbilisi in 2009 and a 4-3 win over Northern Ireland’s Linfield three years ago. In short, it could have been a lot more difficult for the Hibees.
Having said that, Lennon would be wise to take a cautious approach. Scottish clubs have a remarkable gift for underestimating European minnows which can occasionally lead to embarrassing results, particularly given the gulf in finances that often exists between our clubs and teams from smaller nations. Brendan Rodgers lost his first Celtic match to Gibralter’s Lincoln Red Imps, Rangers suffered one of the worst defeats in their history when Progres Niederkorn dumped them out the Europa League qualifiers last season while Aberdeen were beaten 1-0 by opposition from Luxembourg two years ago.
Lennon will be wary then. He’ll know that Hibs are huge favourites for the tie but that fixtures like these – particularly away from home – can easily provide a banana skin for experienced teams to slip on. For now, the Hibs boss will be focused squarely on the home fixture, safe in the knowledge that a commanding win should be enough to see the Edinburgh club qualify for the next round.
In order to overcome Runavik, Lennon would be wise to draw on his experience of European qualification games at Celtic Park to ensure his players do a professional job. When he was in charge of the champions, Lennon was tasked with negotiating Champions League qualifiers and has a good, if unspectacular, record against poorer opposition. Whenever Celtic played vastly inferior opposition they generally won.
There are a couple of notable exceptions, of course. In 2011, Lennon’s side were unceremoniously dumped out of Europe by Sion. Celtic travelled to Kazakhstan in 2013 to face Shakhter Karagandy – who, like Runavik, were already halfway through their domestic season – and suffered a shock 2-0 defeat in stifling heat. Lennon, unfortunately, does have a little history when it comes to disappointing European campaigns. He now has to prove that he’s learned from these mistakes and won’t take any side for granted.
On the whole though, Lennon has a decent record of guiding his sides through European qualifiers. His teams often pick up unremarkable wins in these stages, only winning by a goal or two, but they manage to set the tempo and grind out effective wins. The goals are unlikely to be flying in but Lennon’s record shows that his sides very rarely concede goals against weak opposition – something Hibs fans can take heart from.
In terms of pure ability, this contest should be a relatively straightforward one but Hibs should be aware that the players’ fitness could ultimately decide the result. Lennon’s side come into this game having only played three friendlies so far but Runavik are halfway through their league campaign and have 15 games under their belt already. There could be a little rustiness to shake off for Hibs, which means a pragmatic approach might suit them best.
With players not yet at full match fitness, playing the match conservatively gives Hibernian the best chance at progressing. Hibs should be looking to dictate tempo and control the game and the simplest way to do so is to slow the game down and make chances hard to come by for Runavik. The Easter Road side clearly have the better players; by reducing the game to a cagey encounter with only half-chances on offer, their superior quality should give them the edge to convert difficult opportunities.
Ruvanik will likely have the legs over Hibs, so the best way for Lennon to counter this danger is to set his team up in a system that gives the Ruvanik attackers very little space to work in. By telling his defence to sit a little deeper and organising them effectively, Ruvanik’s superior fitness can count for little and Hibs can ensure the play the game the way they want to play it.
There haven’t been too many changes to the first team squad at Easter Road so far this summer, but Lennon has some decisions to make in the middle of the park. Scott Allan is back at Celtic after his loan finished and Dylan McGeouch has decided to try his luck at Sunderland; both players were crucial in Hibs’ success last year and both leave gaping holes in Lennon’s team.
Stevie Mallan has been brought in to fill one of these gaps and while John McGinn remains a Hibernian player, the two midfielders will have a chance to rekindle their partnership at St Mirren that proved to be so effective. Mallan was the creative force, drifting into space and looking to release forwards with incisive through balls while McGinn buzzed around the midfield, constantly pressing the opposition and winning the ball back. Since then, however, McGinn’s style of play has changed. With fewer defensive responsibilities, the 23-year-old contributes more going forward now and Lennon has clearly decided that’s where McGinn can change games.
With Allan gone and Mallan offering little defensively, Lennon will likely be considering a change in shape. Hibs usually play a three-man midfield with an attacking midfielder ahead of the two centre mids but with replacements still to be brought in this season, Lennon may have to move his attacking midfielder to behind the defence. This obviously gives his back four an extra layer of defence and would help to congest play in this part of the pitch, which we’ve already mentioned should help their chances. Lennon already has the ideal player for this position too in Marvin Bartley. The 32-year-old plays this holding role very well and his experience could prove crucial with so much uncertainty surrounding the Hibs midfield.
All of this might sound a little pessimistic, given that Ruvanik are currently placed fifth in the Faroe Islands domestic league. They might well offer very little in attack and it could turn out to be a very comfortable evening at Easter Road on Thursday. But as an experienced coach, Lennon should be wary of the potential threat of Ruvanik and the requirement of victory. It might not win the hearts and minds of the neutral, but a solid, unspectacular performance is just what Hibernian need at this stage. It’s up to Lennon to deliver it.