As Molde to try and work their way through Europa League qualifying, they meet their toughest opponent in the qualifying rounds to date in Hibernian of Scotland. The Leith club hosting Molde on Thursday is the second fixture that sees an Eliteserien club meet a SPFL Premiership club in European qualifying. Haggis versus smoked salmon, round 2.
Last season marked Hibernian’s return to the top flight in Scotland. The club had spent three seasons in the Championship, the second tier of Scottish football after they were relegated from the top flight in 2013-2014. This time was not all doom and gloom for the Hibees, as they won their first Scottish Cup in 104 years in a dramatic 3-2 victory over Rangers, in which captain David Gray scored the winner on a corner delivered by Liam Henderson in the 2nd minute of injury time.
Hibs return to the SPFL Premiership last season would be considered by most to be a success, finishing 4th in the final table. Their fate in domestic cups was a bit mixed, losing to Celtic in the League Cup Semi-Final and being knocked out of the Scottish Cup by Edinburgh rivals Hearts in the 4th round. Hibs did end up finishing above Hearts in the league though and with Celtic winning the Scottish Cup, their 4th place finish earned them a Europa League qualifying spot.
Hibs had an opportunity to possibly finish higher, depending on how results fell elsewhere and the result of their match against Rangers. Hibs jumped out to a 3 goal lead in the first half and seemed to be within touching distance of possibly overtaking Rangers in the table, only to concede 5 straight goals to the Gers. Hibernian was able to equalize in injury time, prompting the celebration from manager Neil Lennon seen above.
So far this season, Hibernian have only played one league match in which they comfortably defeated Motherwell 3-0. In their Europa League qualifiers up to this point, Hibs have both conceded and scored numerous goals. In their first fixture against NSÍ Runavík, the final aggregate score ended 12-5 in favor of Hibs (though Hibs won the first leg 6-1 at Easter Road and the second leg in the Faroe Islands was a bit of a farce, with thick fog impeding eye sight and any chance of any defending occurring). Against Asteras Tripolis Hibs went down 2-0 at home, but were able again to come from behind and go into the second leg up 3-2. In Greece, Hibs got a goal right before half-time and were able to hold Asteras Tripolis after they equalized early in the second half to book their ticket for the match-up against Molde.
Last season, Hibernian performed as you would expect based on their underlying statistics. They were 4th in xG for at 54.47, 4th in xG conceded at 41.15, and 4th in xG difference at 13.32. Solid both in attack and defense, Hibs is a well rounded club that has an experienced manager in Neil Lennon. They will be a tough test for Molde to get past, but there are certainly areas that Ole Gunnar Solskjær can look to exploit on Thursday.
Much of Hibernian’s success last season was down to how well they controlled the midfield. John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch were crucial in holding the middle of the field for the Hibees and being the creators for the Hibernian attack. McGeouch was 11th in the SPFL expected secondary assists, or the pass before the pass before the shot at 2.78. He won 220 challenges on the ground last season which was 18th best in the SPFL and won 56.4% of challenges he attempted.
John McGinn had even more impressive stats than McGeouch last season. He was 4th in expected assists at 6.68, 4th in xSA at 4.43, 1st in key passes completed at 72, and 3rd in secondary key passes completed. He won 348 ground challenges in SPFL play, the highest in the division, and won 52.1% of all ground challenges he attempted. McGinn was 2nd in the league in completed dribbles at 129 and completed 63.5% of all dribbles. He was 6th in the league in successful tackles at 107. Clearly McGinn was an fundamental part of all parts of Hibs play last season.
As is often the case in Eliteserien, younger talented players like McGeouch and McGinn are typically the targets for bigger clubs after seasons such as they had last year. McGeouch’s contract ended last season and he joined a few other SPFL stand-outs from last season in signing for League One’s Sunderland. McGinn still remains and has continued his good form in Hibernian’s Europa League Qualifiers thus far, but has been linked with clubs such as Celtic, Aston Villa, and others. It seems McGinn will still be in the Hibs squad for Thursday’s match, but he could be sold sometime in the immediate future.
For the first half of last season, Hibernian had some questions about who would play striker for the club. Anthony Stokes and Simon Murray started the year as the strikers presumed to get the most time for he Hibees. Stokes played 1446 league minutes for Hibs last season, but was released on a free in January despite scoring 4 goals as well as an xG of 4.14. Simon Murray played 2262 minutes for Hibs, scoring 6 goals and an xG of 8.57, but was also sent out on loan to Dundee at the end of January.
With these two strikers sent away from Easter Road, Hibs relied on two on loan strikers for the second half of the season in Florian Kamberi and Jamie MacLaren. The two strikers scored 7 non penalty goals each in the league and were crucial in Hibs second half of the SPFL season. Kamberi had an impressive xG per 90 of 0.40 while MacLaren had an even better number of 0.58 per 90. With both strikers being on-loan, Hibs faced a difficult time if they could not replace these talented strikers.
Fortunately for Hibs, both have returned to the Edinburgh club. Kamberi, who averaged 0.40 goals per 90 last season, signed a permanent deal with the club in the summer. On our sister site, Modern Fitba, Jason of The Rangers Report discussed how Kamberi could see some regression in his stats this season but will still likely put up impressive goal scoring numbers. Jamie MacLaren is back on loan from German club Darmstadt 98, but reportedly Hibs has an option to buy the Australian at the end of the season. Both strikers return will help buoy Hibs chances this season.
With MacLaren’s deal just being finalized last week, there is a possibility he may not yet
feature when Hibs host Molde the first leg. He was in Hibs squad in their first league match Sunday against Motherwell but did not appear. Florian Kamberi also did not make it off the bench Sunday with a knee problem. Hibs manager Neil Lennon said that this was in an effort to make sure he is fit for Thursday and it seems he will be available against Molde. If both strikers are available for selection Thursday, Ole Gunnar Solskjær will definitely need to account for their whereabouts on the pitch.
On the opposite side of the pitch, the Hibernian back-line falls under a similar description I gave to the Molde defense. Despite giving up 13 goals in their last 5 competitive fixtures, the Hibs back line has been good enough to allow players like John McGinn and their talented strikers a chance to win. Last season, Hibernian were fourth in the SPFL in xG conceded at 41.15. They conceded the third fewest shots last season at 345. These numbers would suggest a pretty solid defense for a club. Enter Efe Ambrose.
As a Celtic fan, my appreciation for Efe Ambrose has increased once he no longer lined up for my club. Efe seems to genuinely be happy at all times and there have been a few examples of him being great with fans. And typically he seems to be a solid, competent defender. The key word there is typically, as Ambrose is famous for his “bomb scare” moments.
Looking at the numbers from last season, we see they might support Efe being a player Erling Braut Håland and company can try to exploit. In the SPFL last season, Hibs allowed the 8th worst number of shots from the danger zone at 111. They conceded the second highest percentage of the shots they conceded as a whole from the danger zone at 40.1%. Hibs had the 9th worst % of key passes conceded from the middle of the pitch at 31%. With Erling Braut Håland seemingly going to be at Molde at least through the first leg, trying to exploit Efe in the center of the Hibs defense is an opportunity for Molde.
When previewing Celtic and Rosenborg a few weeks ago, I was not hopeful for Rosenborg’s chances. However, in this Hibernian-Molde match-up I think we will see an end to end match that will be a tight affair. Both clubs have young talented players on the attacking side of the ball and an area in the back where they can be exploited. Unfortunately the winner of this fixture will have to deal with Zenit St. Petersburg to get to the Europa League group stages. However, whoever comes through these two matches victorious will have beaten a quality team ahead of their matchup with Zenit.
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