Europa Conference League match preview: Hibernian v Aston Villa: Villa return to Europe after 13 year absence
Qualification for the Europa Conference League group stage continues on Wednesday night as Aston Villa travel to Edinburgh to face Hibernian in the first leg of the playoff round.
This is Villa’s first European tie since they were beaten over two legs by Rapid Vienna in the Europa League playoffs back in 2010.
A return to the European stage for Unai Emery’s side is due reward after the Birmingham outfit collected 15 league wins and 49 points out of a possible 75 in 2022/23 after the Spanish tactician’s appointment in November.
Villa’s imperious form rocketed them from 17th when he took over to 7th, with their place in Europe being clinched by a 2-1 home win over Brighton & Hove Albion on the final day of the Premier League season.
Tomorrow night provides some sort of closure for Villa following a tumultous period since their last proper European campaign in 2008/9. The club were relegated in 2016 and spent three seasons in the second tier before promotion in 2019.
The Villans travel to Scotland off the back of a mixed start to the Premier League season, as a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Newcastle United on the opening day was rectified by a 4-0 win over a hapless Everton at Villa Park on Sunday afternoon.
Each of Villa’s summer signings have arrived with experience of the Thursday-Sunday schedule that a continental adventure demands, so they will be aiming to make short work of their playoff opponents and advance to the group stage.
Lee Johnson’s Hibernian won’t make it easy for them though and have reached the playoff stage after a victory over Swiss Super League side Luzern over two legs in the third qualifying round.
A 3-1 triumph at Easter Road in the first leg via goals from Joe Newell, Dylan Vente and Jordan Obita, was followed by a 2-2 draw in Switzerland to setup a glamour tie with Villa and a reunion with their former star midfielder John McGinn, who helped the club win the 2016 Scottish Cup before leaving for the Villa Park side in 2018.
This tie is arguably the biggest game in many of the Hibs players’ careers and knocking Premier League opposition out and reaching the group stage of the Conference League would be a major scalp for the SPL side.
Hibs will likely need a decent result to take to Birmingham with them in order to do that, given Villa’s home record and they have started their domestic season poorly following last term’s fifth-placed finish in the SPL, having recording back-to-back losses against St Mirren and Motherwell respectively.
Johnson’s side were also embarrased by a first leg loss to Andorran side Inter Club d’Escaldes in the Conference League second qualifying round last month, before coming back in the return leg to progress
The Edinburgh side will looking to significantly raise their game under the lights at Easter Road on Wednesday evening.
Villa will be without several first-team players for trip north, with Tyrone Mings, Emiliano Buendia and Jacob Ramsey the most notable absentees with ACL and metatarsal injuries respectively.
Phillipe Coutinho will be sidelined for a few weeks after picking up a knock in the win over Everton, whilst left-back Alex Moreno is still recovering from an thigh injury.
Leon Bailey should be fine to play on Wednesday after he went off with a minor injury at the weekend.
The match provides Emery with the chance to rotate his squad with key Premier League games ahead, so the likes of Youri Tielemans, Diego Carlos, Calum Chambers and Robin Olsen may receive starts.
Several key players such as Moussa Diaby and Ollie Watkins should start however, and John McGinn will surely captain the side against his former club
Unai Emery confirmed that new signing Nicolo Zaniolo could make his Villa debut on Wednesday night, but the Galatasaray loanee may have to make an appearance from the bench after recovering from a groin strain.
Dylan Vente should recover from a bloodied nose received in the League Cup win over Raith Rovers at the weekend in order to lead the line for Hibs here.
Lee Johnson will be without Wales international Dylan Levitt who has an ankle injury, whilst Joe Wollacott, Chris Cadden and former Villa youth product Harry McKirdy are out with thigh, Achilles and heart problems, respectively.
Levitt will replaced in the midfield by another graduate from their opponents’ academy in Jake Doyle-Hayes, who will partner Birmingham City fan Joe Newell in the hosts’ lineup.
Likely lineups and prediction
Marshall; Miller, Fish, Hanlon, Stevenson; Youan, Doyle-Hayes, Newell, Boyle; Le Fondre; Vente
Aston Villa (4-2-2-2)
Olsen; Chambers, Carlos, Torres, Digne; Kamara, Tielemans; Bailey, McGinn; Watkins, Diaby
Villa should have more than enough firepower to beat the Scottish Premier League side, despite facing a hostile Easter Road atmosphere and fired up home players.
The visitors will feel confident about returning to Villa Park for the return leg with a commanding lead due to the quality and depth of their squad and the European experience that their manager possesses.
Hibernian 0 Aston Villa 3