BY ALAN TEMPLE in MOLDE – @CCP_Sport
LEWIS STEVENSON, the only man to win both the League and Scottish Cup with Hibernian, insists reaching the group phase of the Europa League would represent the ‘ultimate achievement’ for the capital club.
Neil Lennon’s charges take to the artificial turf of the Aker Stadium on Thursday with their third qualifying round tie delicately balanced at 0-0 following a nerve-shredding first leg at Easter Road.
Zenit St-Petersburg or, more likely given their startling 4-0 win in Belarus, Dinamo Minsk await the victors.
Aberdeen remain the last side outwith Celtic or Rangers to reach the group phase of a continental competition back in 2007, with the qualifying process becoming increasingly gruelling for Scotland’s representatives.
Moreover, despite their storied past in Europe – 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.
So while ending Hibs’ 114-year wait to lift the Scottish Cup and his man of the match award in their 5-1 demolition of Kilmarnock in the 2007 CIS Cup final are glorious memories, securing their place in the Europa League group phase would be an unrivalled feat.
“The last couple of seasons, we’ve been beating records here and there,” said Stevenson. “If we did this it would be the biggest of them all. I didn’t realise how long it had been since we’d been this far in Europe, in terms going through so many rounds.
“I think reaching the group stage would be the ultimate achievement. We had good success in the league last year and have had special runs in the Cups, but to do it on the European stage would be incredible.
“We aren’t quite there yet, but we’ll focus on the game on Thursday and hopefully make history.
“In previous years when I first came into the team, you would enjoy the experience and enjoy the European trips, but from the start this year we stated that we wanted to progress and be successful – and we’ve done pretty well so far.”
Tonight’s mouth-watering encounter against Molde will represent Hibs’ eighth competitive fixture in slightly shy of five weeks and, unlike some clubs who used the Betfred Cup as something between a pre-season schedule and competitive matches, Neil Lennon has largely utilised the same core group.
However, he believes the momentum and bond created during their congested – but undefeated – start to the season could prove invaluable.
“We’ve probably spent more time with each another than we have with our families recently,” he joked. “But it’s a tight-knit squad and, you never know, that might be the difference.
“We do a lot of video stuff but, honestly, I think playing games is the best way to prepare for the next one. The boys are up and running and it already feels like it is the middle of the season.
“I’ve played in Europe when we’ve just had one or two games and it hasn’t quite felt the same, but this time we are match-sharp and ready to go.”
It was a similarly bullish Ole Gunnar Solksjaer who had addressed the travelling press corps earlier on Wednesday, promising a very different Molde side from the one that underperformed at Easter Road.
A 5-1 win over league leaders Brann certainly seemed indicative of a team finding their flow.
“We can’t focus on that,” said Stevenson of the eye-catching triumph. “We got a good look at them last week, we’ll be prepared – regardless of their last game – and hopefully we can give them some problems.”
Meanwhile, Hibs head coach Neil Lennon believes an under-appreciated Martin Boyle can torment Molde this evening – and press home his case for a Scotland call-up.
“Martin was a squad player and has pushed himself forward and has got better every season,” lauded 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.”