Featured Photo: Erin West
In their first season in the UEFA Youth League since 2013, Hibernian’s journey has been quite different to their Scottish counterparts. Celtic and Rangers both automatically qualified to the groups due to the success of the senior sides qualifying for the UEFA Champions League, but the Edinburgh youngsters had to do it themselves.
Hibs qualified for the UEFA Youth League after winning the U18s Scottish League last season, and unlike the Glasgow sides, had to play two playoff games if they were to reach the knockouts.
In September, Hibs were drawn against Norwegian side, Molde. The Edinburgh side travelled across the North Sea for the first leg, losing 1-0 to a Johan Bakke free kick. Both teams ended the match with ten men as Leon-Robin Juberg-Hovland was sent off after being shown two yellow cards and Hibs’ Jacob MacIntyre was shown a straight red for a late challenge.
Despite the defeat, Hibs were competitive throughout the match in what was wet conditions on the Norwegian coast. This gave them confidence for the second leg which would be played in front of a home crowd at Easter Road.
In early October, Hibs and Molde met again with Hibs chasing the tie. As the first UEFA Youth League tie being played at Easter Road since 2013, it was always going to be a historic night.
Hibs raced into a two-goal lead scoring either side of half-time through Jacob Blaney and Malik Zaid. That put Hibs ahead in the tie as they were 2-1 up on aggregate but a late goal from Molde’s Martin Tornes meant that the sides were going to be separated by penalties. Five perfect spot kicks from Hibs and a superb Murray Johnson save to deny Johan Bakke’s effort on Molde’s third penalty secured the victory for Hibs in front of their noisy fans behind the goal.
Later that month, in the second playoff round Hibs faced French side FC Nantes with the first leg at Easter Road this time. It proved to be a tense affair with both teams trying not to lose the game and give up the advantage for the game in France the following week. However, Ethan Laidlaw’s
bursting run down the left wing ended in him being fouled by the Nantes defender inside the box. Laidlaw then stepped up to take the penalty and sent the Nantes goalkeeper the wrong way, to the joy of just under 3,000 Hibees in the crowd.
A week after the first leg, Hibs travelled to France to defend their one-goal lead. However, after only 17 minutes, Mahamoud had put Nantes 1-0 up and levelled up the tie. But just 5 minutes later Josh O’Connor made it level on the night to restore Hibs’ aggregate lead.
This advantage was doubled three minutes after half-time when Rudi Molotnikov found the back of the net. As the game went on, the home side coped well with the constant Nantes pressure and saw out the 3-1 aggregate victory.
The win against Nantes meant that Hibs’ next playoff opponent would be one of the sides that finished second in the group stages of the competition which meant that some European giants could be on the cards for the Hibs youngsters.
The draw did not disappoint as Hibs were drawn at home to former champions league winners, Borussia Dortmund in a one-leg affair. The game is to be played on February 7 with a bumper crowd to be expected in Leith.
Laidlaw’s composure in the midfield throughout the whole competition has been key to Hibs reaching this far. However, O’Connor also deserves a mention for his pace which provided his side with a threat even when they were under the cosh in the matches. His goal in France just after Hibs went behind was crucial to their success as the team could have crumbled under that sort of pressure. They stood up and went the other way, managing to get the win.
Hibs are now the last team in Scotland left in the competition and have a massive game to look forward to in February. They must not let this fantastic run derail their domestic season as that is
ultimately what got them to the heights of European football, but use it as motivation to develop and fulfill their potential.
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