A positive result in the third qualifying round first leg and 90 minutes away from writing Maltese football history. All this sounds familiar to Hibernians.
A 96th-minute goal from Latvian side Riga FC had practically dashed Hibernians’ hopes of becoming the first Maltese club to make it to the play-off round of a UEFA club competition last summer.
This time around, Hibernians can redeem themselves against another Latvian side, this time in the form of FK RFS.
Hibernians will be buoyed by Thursday’s performance in Latvia ahead of next week’s second leg after battling bravely with ten men for over an hour to snatch a well-deserved 1-1 draw.
Pisanu has now guided Hibernians in four European games since taking over from Stefano Sanderra and is still unbeaten with three draws and a win, as well as qualification to this stage of the competition.
Thaylor was given his marching orders early in the first half and as a result, he will be absent from the second leg on home soil.
The Spaniard’s absence is a blow to Hibernians given the fact that their wingbacks play a crucial role in their playing style.
Nonetheless, coach Pisanu is upbeat about their chances of progressing while heaping praise on his team’s fighting spirit against the Latvian champions.
“The match was difficult and complicated,” Pisanu told the Times of Malta.
“We faced a very tough squad who play physically and is really dynamic. In addition, they were playing home, so we knew what to expect from this fixture.
“Obviously, the red card influenced the match as we had to drop further in order to defend properly but on the other hand, we were very proactive with the ball and we could have even scored more than one goal in the first half.”
Trailing by one goal on home soil, FK RFS came out of the blocks stronger in the second half and they were handed a glorious opportunity to level terms inside the opening five minutes when they were awarded a penalty.
Nonetheless, FK RFS could not beat Hibernians’ goalkeeper Ibrahim Kone who neutralised the penalty and made a handful of important saves in the closing stages which frustrated the home side.
“As expected, our opponents dictated proceedings in the second half as they were looking to score but except for the penalty kick situation and Ibrahim Kone’s brilliant saves at the end, we did not really risk a lot,” the Italian coach said.
“Despite FK RFS were piling the pressure on us, we still managed to beat their press on a number of occasions and had opportunities to hurt them as well.
“I must admit that it was a brilliant performance from a physical level as well.”
For Hibernians, this was just their fifth competitive game in the 2022-23 season whereas FK RFS are already 23 games in their season and will be playing another league game over the weekend as they are on course for a second title in a row.
The numerical disadvantage looked as if it had taken its toll on the Maltese champions as physically it became even more difficult in the closing stages of the game.
“There is plenty of improvement for us at physical level, especially since we are at the start of our new season,” the former Sliema Wanderers coach said.
“On the other hand, we were facing a side that is already midway into its domestic campaign and that is why I have to praise the fighting spirit that my players have shown against FK RFS.”
One of the key players of the Latvian side facing Hibernians in the first leg was left winger Emerson. The diminutive Brazilian winger posed a lot of awkward threats to the Maltese backline, especially to Thaylor whose yellow card was due to a foul on Emerson himself.
However, the Brazilian’s influence on the game reduced drastically after the change of ends. Hibernians’ fixed five at the back due to their numerical disadvantage and the high level of concentration that the Paolites showed at the back, made it difficult for Emerson to break down his markers.
“Their number 9 is a very interesting player but you’d expect to face such players the more you advance in European competitions,” Pisanu said.
“I think we did a good job of doubling him but overall I am pleased with how the team reacted in every defensive situation.
“It would have been easy for the players to suffer a psychological blow after the red card. But instead, we stayed calm and we even managed to score a goal.”
Once again, history beckons for Hibernians and last years’ experience will surely be an advantage for the Maltese champions to try and make it to the play-off round where they would potentially face Linfield of the Northern Ireland who lost 2-0 in the first leg against FC Zurich in the Europa League.
“Now it is time to recover our energies and as from Monday, we start to prepare for Thursday’s match,” Pisanu added.
“We are aware that it will be difficult for us, but we deserve to be here and we will give it all on home soil in front of our fans.”