The heat's on our Europa League opponents says Lewis Stevenson
Asteras are no strangers to the Europa League having made regular appearances on this particular stage and venturing as far as the group stages – the stated goal of Hibs head coach Neil Lennon – in successive seasons only a couple of years ago.
The Edinburgh club’s own participation has been a tad more sporadic but, claimed Stevenson, the memory of how he and his team-mates came within a whisker of causing something of a shock when, as a side still operating in the Championship, they took Danish side Brondby to a penalty shoot-out before making their exit.
Those matches against the Copenhagen side were Lennon’s first in charge of Hibs, the former Celtic manager having been appointed as a surprise successor to Alan Stubbs who had taken everyone aback with an abrupt departure for an ill-fated spell at Rotherham United only days after guiding the capital side to that historic Scottish Cup triumph.
But Stevenson feels that, in the intervening period, he and his team-mates have become just that little bit more streetwise under the guidance of Lennon and, as difficult as Asteras may prove to be, he thinks the Edinburgh club are well capable of holding their own. He said: “The Greeks are going to be good but the last time in Europe against Brondby we did pretty well. The place was rocking but we lost an early goal which chilled the mood a bit. It’s going to be tough but we have played a bit of European football now.
“I think we will be the underdogs, but we have the same nucleus of players from the Brondby game and hopefully we can look back on that experience and put it to good use.”
Hibs progressed thanks to a 12-5 aggregate win over Nsi Runavik of the Faroe Islands, although the return leg in the North Atlantic proved to be far from a stroll after the part-time minnows were hammered 6-1 in Edinburgh but, claimed Stevenson, the scare of going 2-0 down in just five minutes before eventually ending up victors again can be put to good use.
He said: “We didn’t get the start we expected. To be fair, though, we didn’t crumble, we fought back. We weren’t happy with the performance. We know if we perform like that against the Greeks, then we are going to have a couple of tough games.”
Stevenson confessed to knowing little about Asteras other than having noticed the temperature in Athens was a roasting 35C as Lennon’s players contended with incessant rain and a thick fog which at one point threatened to have Thursday night’s match abandoned. But over the course of the next few days he knows he and his team-mates will be brought up to speed.
He said: “We’ve been focusing on Runavik but I’m sure we’ll get the information on the players we’ll be playing against. It’s a totally different style in Europe. Here you end up playing the same teams, the same players four times a season and you get used to it.
“But when you are coming up against players you’ve never seen before it’s that first five minutes when you want to get on the front foot. You know their style of play will be different as will their movement and probably even the way they pass the ball. It’s something you have to get to grips with, but we’ve had that experience in the past which we can hopefully call on.”
Usually at this time of year the collective complaint from Scottish sides in Europe is that they are being pitched into action against clubs already halfway through their season – Runavik had played 15 domestic games – while they’ve barely returned to training.
But, for once, Stevenson believes the tables might be turned ever so slightly on this occasion with the Greek season yet to get under way, Asteras having spent reacent days in a training camp in Poland.
He said: “Hopefully it can be a slight advantage for us. Maybe it will cool down a bit in Scotland and they won’t be used to it. We’ll be playing the second leg not too far away from Athens where it was 35C the other day so hopefully the heatwave we’ve had here will stand us in good stead.
“You try to get every edge you can and if our fans can make Easter Road a bit intimidating for them then we’ll take it.”