A place in the Europa Conference League group stages is up for grabs as Hibernian and Aston Villa lock horns in the first leg of their qualifying play-off tie on Wednesday.
Despite seeing the odds heavily stacked against them in this all-British contest, Lee Johnson’s side will fancy their chances at a sold-out Easter Road, the former home of Villa captain John McGinn.
While the 28-year-old midfielder returns to Edinburgh as a foe, he’ll likely encounter warm reception, having been part of the Hibs squad that won the Scottish Cup in 2015/16 and Premiership promotion the following year.
It’s been five years since McGinn left Hibernian, but the fans have hardly forgotten his contribution to the club’s first cup triumph in 114 years, though he now stands in their way to maiden European qualification.
While the Conference League isn’t exactly a pinnacle of continental football, the Villa faithful will gladly take it after waiting almost 13 years for a European night at Villa Park.
Although Europe’s third-tier competition lacks the glitter that comes with the Champions League, it takes nothing away from a memorable turnaround inspired by Unai Emery last season.
The Spaniard took charge of a downtrodden team stranded in the second half of the Premier League table and transformed it into genuine European contenders.
Emery led Villa to a seventh-place finish at the expense of Tottenham Hotspur, a result which warranted a raft of high-profile summer signings, including Pau Torres, Moussa Diaby, Youri Tielemans and Nicolo Zaniolo.
A significant gulf in class between the sides is the least of Hibernian’s problems, given their woeful start to the new season.
Their road to the Conference League group stages started with an abysmal 2-1 defeat in Andorra to below-par Inter Club d’Escaldes.
Johnson’s men bounced back with a thumping 6-1 home win in the second leg before fighting their way past Swiss outfit Luzern, courtesy of a 5-3 aggregate score.
But Hibs have failed to live up to expectations in league action following last season’s fifth-place finish, starting the new campaign with back-to-back losses to St Mirren and Motherwell.
Progressing from the Scottish League Cup last-16 round with a 2-1 win over second-tier Raith Rovers last weekend could be a much-needed confidence boost for the Scottish underdogs.
Unfortunately for Hibernian, Villa will make this trip in a buoyant mood after putting perennial Premier League strugglers Everton to the sword on Sunday.
Seven days after succumbing to a disgusting 5-1 defeat at Newcastle United, Emery’s side got off the mark in the new Premier League season with an overwhelming 4-0 home win against the Toffees.
The aforementioned McGinn broke the deadlock before Douglas Luiz, Leon Bailey and Jhon Duran sealed the Lions’ emphatic triumph, setting them up perfectly for this heavily anticipated showdown.
However, Villa would be wise not to take anything for granted as they haven’t won a competitive match outside Villa Park since early April, going winless on their last five travels (D2, L3).
After five years in Australia with Sydney FC, former Cardiff City and Bolton Wanderers forward Adam Le Fondre is back in Europe to help Hibernian make history.
While long-term absentees Harry McKirdy and Jojo Wollacott are still unavailable for selection, Hibs can turn to young blood in Manchester United loanee Will Fish to provide a spark at the back.
Visiting Villa will travel to Scotland without Jacob Ramsey, Alex Moreno, Emiliano Buendia, Kortney Hause and Leander Dendoncker, all of which have yet to make an appearance this season.
Tyrone Mings has joined Emery’s substantial contingent of the injured first-team stars after suffering a dreadful knee injury against Newcastle a week ago.
Hibernian potential starting line-up:
(4-2-3-1): David Marshall; Lewis Miller, Will Fish, Paul Hanlon, Lewis Stevenson; Joe Newell, Josh Campbell; Elie Youan, Adam Le Fondre, Martin Boyle; Dylan Vente.
Aston Villa potential starting line-up:
(4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Ezri Konsa, Diego Carlos, Pau Torres, Lucas Digne; Boubacar Kamara, Youri Tielemans; Moussa Diaby, John McGinn, Leon Bailey; Ollie Watkins.
We Say: Hibernian 0-2 Aston Villa
It has been a while since Villa last had a competitive trip across the border, but they can rely on Emery, an astute specialist in European competitions, to get them a safe passage.
We back the English side to make the return leg a pure formality with a landslide win at Easter Road.
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