Hibernian rued missed opportunities this evening and had to settle for a 1-1 draw against HNK Rijeka in the first leg of our Europa Conference League qualifying tie.
Despite a brave, attacking performance we had to come from behind to level after Prince Ampem headed the Croatian side ahead against the run of play.
We quickly levelled with Martin Boyle continuing his fine run of goal scoring form, however it was a night when we create a host of chances and should have won.
Nevertheless, we saw enough this evening to know that we can hurt HNK Rijeka and win next week in Croatia.
Jack Ross made just one change from the side that defeated Motherwell 3-2 on the opening day of the cinch Premiership campaign.
Jake Doyle-Hayes replaced Alex Gogic in the midfield engine room with the Cypriot powerhouse dropping down to the substitutes bench, where he was joined by Josh Doig.
We settled quickly and were unlucky not to be ahead in the 5th minute when a lovely floated free kick from Kyle Magennis found the head of Paul Hanlon – who got there just ahead of goalkeeper Nediljko Labrovic – however the skipper could not guide it on target.
In attempting to reach the delivery Hanlon collided with Labrovic and Andrija Vukcevic resulting in a nasty clash of heads. Vukcevic recovered quickly whilst Hanlon and Labrovic required lengthy treatment before continuing with their heads heavily bandaged.
Vukcevic was quickly back in the thick of the action and had the visitors first effort of the evening with a right foot strike from the edge of the Hibs box that Matt Macey pushed around his post for a corner kick.
In our familiar 4-2-3-1 formation we took the game to HNK Rijecka and had several good opportunities to break the deadlock.
From a Hibs corner kick, a sliced clearance from the visitors caused a moment of panic at the back for Goran Tomic’s side, before eventually being hooked clear.
Then, a Jamie Murphy cross only just evaded Kevin Nisbet as the striker threw himself towards the ball attempting to meet it.
On 23 minutes a quick, incisive move down the right almost provided the opening goal. Joe Newell found Paul McGinn on the flank and his early cross was met first time by Boyle, who struck a powerful effort that Labrovic did well to beat away.
Less than a minute later we had another good opportunity when Murphy ran onto a McGinn cut back, only to shoot straight at Labrovic who gathered comfortably.
HNK Rijelka appeared streetwise and were happy to sit back before attempting to counter down the flanks.
On one such break away on the right Ampem was not far away from a spectacular opening with a rising shot from 25-yards that was just over Macey’s crossbar.
We were soon on the attack again and had another good chance to score when Boyle drove down the right wing before picking out the run of Nisbet only for the Scotland striker to shoot straight at Labrovic.
We were getting into good shooting positions however the clinical final touch was not with us tonight.
The visitors attempted to play an expansive game and kept their wingers hugging the touchlines.
They were very quick to turn defence into attack and on 35 minutes Issah Abass found Ampem and his threaded pass in behind the Hibs defence released Vukcevic, who attempted to beat Macey at his near post, only to be denied by the stopper.
Our best attacking moments came when we played quick, incisive passing around HNK Rikeka rather than trying to play through our opponents.
The best example of this came in the 42nd minute when Lewis Stevenson won the ball deep in his own halve before quickly finding Boyle. The winger drove forward before laying off to Stevenson, who had continued his run, and the full-back’s first time, angled drive crashed back off the base of the post.
A goalless first half did not reflect an exciting match that we were unfortunate not to be leading at the interval.
We started the second period as we ended the first by taking the game to our opponents and had an early opportunity that Murphy put over the crossbar.
Boyle then went close with an angled drive that fizzed into the side netting as we continued to push for an opener.
We had a big shout for a penalty kick when Josip Drmic brought down Boyle as he looked to get in behind, however the referee was unmoved and play continued.
Then, against the run of play, HNK Rijeka scored. Vukcevic struck a deep, hanging back post cross that was headed in from close range by Ghanaian winger, Ampem. The goal scorer was substituted before play resumed.
Their lead would last only six minutes as we struck back. A corner was headed towards goal by Nisbet and although Labrovic saved, Boyle was perfectly positioned to slam home the rebound.
Substitute Robert Muric almost restored the visitors lead with a wonderful run and shot that saw him side-step Porteous and curl a fine finish just wide of the far post from 20 yards.
We made a triple substitution with 10 minutes remaining as Alex Gogic, Daniel Mackay and Scott Allan were introduced.
There was one final chance to win it when substitute Mackay was sent through on goal deep into time added on. He attempted to slot it beyond Labrovic with the goalkeeper standing tall to deny him.
It finished a draw on the night however there were plenty of positives to take from a fantastic performance with all to play for next week when we take to the field in our 100th match in European competition.
Hibernian: Macey, Hanlon, Porteous, McGinn, Magennis (Allan 79’), Boyle, Newell (Gogic 79’), Nisbet (Mackay 79’), Stevenson, Murphy (Doidge 62’), Doyle-Hayes. Substitutes not used: Dabrowski, Samson, Doig, Wright, Gullan, McGregor, Campbell, Brydon.
HNK Rijeka: Labrovic, Galovic, Liber (Selahi 60’), Pavicic (Obregon 92’), Ampem (Muric 60’), Vukcevic (Kresic 80’), Drmic (Lepinjica 90’), Escoval, Tomecak, Abass, Smolcic. Substitutes not used: Prskalo, Frigan, Braut, Velkovski, Cerin, Selahi.
Referee: Juan Martinez Munuera.