The hosts struggled to deal with Villa’s pace up top – Lewis Stevenson will be glad to see the back of Moussa Diaby until at least next week – and were repeatedly caught out by the English side’s offside trap. Emery even gave World Cup-winning goalkeeper Emi Martínez the second half off, bringing on Sweden No.1 Robin Olsen at the break.
Villa were dominant but there was also a feeling that they had more gears that they simply didn’t need to use. Save for a couple of promising half-chances in the first half, and two crosses from Youan early in the second 45, it was a predictable night for Lee Johnson’s men and one that ensures the return leg will be little more than a training game for Villa.
Villa clinical, Hibs fragile
Villa’s 18 shots on goal to Hibs’ seven, coupled with the lion’s share of possession, came as no surprise. Their £31.5m centre-half signing Pau Torres started, as did their £51.9m winger Moussa Diaby. For the first 17 minutes, Hibs stood firm. And then Lucas Digne’s cross found the head of Watkins, and the England internationalist’s header found the back of the net past a motionless David Marshall. The visitors repeated the feat 15 minutes later, with Watkins giving his marker the slip at the back post to nod in his and Villa’s second. The always-threatening Bailey added a header of his own three minutes before the break as Liverpool’s 7-1 scoreline at Ibrox last season looked to be in danger of being surpassed.
Villa were devastatingly clinical in the final third and could easily have added more to their tally but Hibs – as they have on more than one occasion this season so far – looked ropey in defence at times, and Johnson unsurprisingly highlighted his rearguard’s shortcomings during his post-mortem.
In all honesty it could have been a much bigger scoreline – perhaps John McGinn had words at half-time with his team-mates to the effect of reining it in a little – but Hibs still made too many unforced errors which, against a team like Villa, were nearly always punished.
Youan flatters to deceive
We saw both sides of Youan against Villa – unfortunately for the player and Hibs, there were more bad habits on show than sprinklings of stardust. The Frenchman is blessed with blistering pace and he used it twice to good effect in the early part of the second period but there were no takers for his cross in either situation. But he also has a tendency to make the wrong decision; turning into trouble or holding onto the ball too long, and he did that far too often against a team that was always going to capitalise on such gifts.
His night was summed up in the final ten minutes when he scampered away from Matty Cash and drove towards goal, but ran the ball out of play with a heavy touch. The jeers from the Villa end were louder than the howls of frustration from the Hibs fans who hadn’t already left the stadium – but the offside flag spared his blushes somewhat. Yes, if Youan didn’t have these foibles, he wouldn’t be at Hibs and yes, the gulf in talent and finances between Hibs and Villa was all too clear to see. But this was a game when more was needed from the mercurial attacker. Would it have made a difference? Probably not in the grand scheme of things, but he is capable of much more.
Livingston scouting mission?
Three figures in the Aston Villa end will have been watching closely – Bruce Anderson, Joel Nouble, and Ayo Obileye of Livingston, who travel to face Hibs on league duty this weekend. They might not have learned too much from the 90-odd minutes against Villa, although they will hope to exploit some of the same weaknesses the Villans exposed repeatedly.
More pressing for Hibs is the need to get a first win of the cinch Premiership season under their belts, having lost their first two against St Mirren and Motherwell. Livi are also winless, drawing with Aberdeen and losing to Rangers, but they have had Hibs’ number on a good few occasions in recent seasons. Victory would be a good way to bounce back from the tanking by Villa, and also get their first league points on the board and given their European exploits are all but over, becomes more important with full attention now turning to the domestic competitions.
What next for Hibs?
Villa could effectively play a second string in the return leg next week, such was the comprehensiveness of their first-leg victory, but even though it will be largely a formality, Hibs can still use the game to regain some pride, test themselves against tough opposition, and gain further experience that should hopefully help the team on a domestic level and improve their individual game.
Given that this is where the club wants to be on an annual basis, albeit not necessarily with such a tough draw, the players will have a greater idea of what is required for continental competition and that in turn should mean a greater understanding of what is needed to finish as high up the league table as possible, in order to avoid an arduous and in all likelihood near impossible journey to reach the group stages.
But if Hibs are to have any hopes of finishing third or fourth they will have to nix the avoidable errors, take their chances in front of goal, and stiffen up defensively. If they do that, we could very well see them testing themselves in Europe again this time next year.