RIGA FC 0
I.Brkic; A. Cernomordijs, I. Paurevic, C. Saiz Ortegon; A. Petersons, K. Loukili (74 E. Babayan), Wesley, F. Brisola (58 B. Halimi), M. Soisalo, J. Leo (58 Y. Muritala), Y. Vakulko.
I.Kone (46 N. Vella); Thaylor, L. Almeida, F. Apap (62 Z. Grech), A. Agius, D. Vella, B. Kristensen, S. Raphael, J. Grech, W. Domoraud, J. Degabriele.
Referee: Volen Chinkov (Bulgaria FA).
Yellow cards: Thaylor, Almeida.
The Daugava Stadium in Riga is becoming a happy hunting ground for Maltese teams after Hibernians edged out Riga FC 1-0 in the first leg of the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa Conference League.
Andrei Agius’ spectacular volley followed Steve Borg’s last-gasp header which had handed Malta a famous 1-0 win over Latvia in the UEFA Nations League, at the same stadium.
On paper, Riga – current Latvian champions – were tipped as favourites as they are sitting second in the Latvian league, having already played 18 games.
On the other hand, Hibernians were playing just their fifth game of the season having featured only in UEFA club competitions so far.
Both teams will meet next week as Hibernians will look to preserve their narrow advantage to write history and become Malta’s first-ever representatives in the play-off round of a UEFA competition, with Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar likely to be the potential opponents after losing 3-1 to Slovan Bratislava in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League third qualifying round.
For this game, Hibernians coach Stefano Sanderra handed goalkeeper Ibrahim Kone his debut but it was short-lived as he had to be replaced at the interval due to a knock.
In the opening stages of the game, both teams were wary of each other with Hibernians closing all channels while Riga denied the Paolites from making the damage on the break.
Yet, it was the Maltese side who almost forged ahead at the first time of asking when Dunstan Vella found Jurgen Degabriele in a glorious spot inside the area but the Malta international saw his effort comfortably blocked by Riga’s goalkeeper.
Riga’s winger Karim Loukili tried to reply with a close-range effort just to see the Hibernians backline push back his attempt.
Chances were at premium and it was Hibernians’ chance to have a shot at Riga’s goal through Jake Grech’s curling effort but finished just wide.
Moments later, Felipe Brisola let fly a shot from the edge of the area but the ball sailed wide over Kone’s goal.
Riga’s Mikael Soisalo tried to threaten Kone with a header but the Hibernians’ new custodian averted the danger before coming to the rescue for the Paolites when he managed to divert Leandro Almeida’s potential own goal into corner.
The Latvian side were looking to up their ante in the final minutes of the first half, even though it was a Degabriele’s thumping volley that went over the bar which wrapped up the first half into a goalless stalemate.
At the restart, goalkeeper Nicky Vella replaced Kone who suffered a knock late in the first 45 minutes that forced him to sit out for the second half.
The Paolites almost forged ahead when Wilfried Domoraud hit a close-range strike that struck the woodwork before Riga cleared the danger away.
Vella was forced into action when he managed to block Ivan Paurevic’s header from inside the area as Riga were looking to pile the pressure on the Maltese side.
Dunstan Vella attempted his luck from the edge of the area with his effort being diverted into a corner.
From the resultant set-piece, Hibernians forged ahead through an Andrei Agius wonder goal. The Malta defender hit a first-timer from outside the area that hit the back of the net to the delight of the Maltese side.
Riga were struggling to stage a reaction and Hibernians had the chance to profit from their opponents’ blackout but Grech failed to double his team’s lead after his close-range effort failed to hit the target.
As the game was nearing its end, Riga were finding it difficult to create any chances as Hibernians dictated proceedings to see the game through.