Thursday, July 25, 2013

St Johnstone and Hibs face Europa challenges

The second week of European participation for Scottish clubs and we're one for one so far.

Celtic got Cliftonville out of the way with a 2-0 win at Celtic Park on Tuesday for a 5-0 win on aggregate.

If Neil Lennon pointed to a certain rusty profligacy it was job done with a minimum of fuss.

Sweden's Elfsborg - who knocked 11 past Latvian side Daugava (who, Wikipedia tells me, have conceded 21 goals in three European ties) - are the next hurdle as Celtic look for a repeat of last season's European progress.

Elfsborg - currently fifth in the Swedish league - should present a stronger challenge than Cliftonville but it's a challenge that Celtic should be able to overcome.

Scottish clubs face Europa League qualifying games
Sterner tests too for both St Johnstone and Hibs in the Europa League qualifiers tonight.

St Johnstone face Rosenborg in Perth with a one goal lead safely delivered from the away leg. If that result was a fantastic achievement it has not persuaded betting sites to revise their opinion that the Norwegians are favourites to progress.

The first leg win was an ideal start for new manager Tommy Wright, who already appears so comfortable in the role that Rosenborg manager, Per Joar Hansen, has been moved to accuse him of playing mind games.

Wright had claimed that losing at this stage in the competition would be a disaster for the Norwegians who currently lead their domestic league. He's also spoken about springing a surprise on the visitors in his team selection. No doubt designed to keep the pressure off his own players, it gives the impression that this is a man relishing his new job.

It might be argued that taking a 1-0 lead into a home time against opponents considered favourites for the tie is a tricky proposition.

Perhaps. But it's a problem Pat Fenlon would love to have as he tries to engineer a way back from 2-0 down as Malmo - 16 games into their league season and second in the table - visit Hibs.

The loss of two early goals in Sweden looked like not only ending Hibs Europa participation but signalling the start of a heavy defeat.

While Malmo continued to threaten and dominated for large chunks, what belief Hibs take into this game will stem from the way they held out at two down and the chances of their own - limited but very real - that they created.

A Malmo goal will finish Hibs off, leaving Fenlon in the invidious position of requiring goals and also having to rely on a defence that looked shaky in losing two goals in such quick succession last week.

It's been a long time since Easter Road was enthralled by a famous European night. In a week when Famous Five legend Lawrie Reilly's shadow looms large, Hibs need to try and replicate the nights of yore this evening.

It would take something out of the ordinary for both Hibs and St Johnstone to progress but it would be big, big boost for the newly named Scottish Premiership if one or both could.

And something to note for proponents of summer football in Scotland: a worst case scenario a couple of weeks hence could see three of our teams dumped out of Europe by Scandinavian sides already reasonably deep into their domestic seasons.

Let's hope results go well enough to leave that debate - worthwhile as it might well be - for another day.