Hibernian’s Europa Conference League journey came to an end this evening following a harsh 4-1 defeat by HNK Rijeka in Croatia.
Kyle Magennis scored his third goal of the campaign to cancel out Domagoj Pavicic’s first half opener and we looked the stronger side until a 65th minute red card for Darren McGregor proved to be a turning point.
Almost immediately Goran Tomic’s side restored their lead through Issah Abass before extending it when Paul McGinn put through his goal.
With the last kick of the game Denis Busnja scored a fourth goal to give HNK Rijeka a flattering margin of victory they ill-deserved.
We will no doubt look back on a missed opportunity and what may have happened had we kept ten men on the park, however Rijeka deserved their win and will face PAOK in the next round.
Jack Ross was forced into two changes with Paul Hanlon left home due to a head knock picked up in last week’s first leg, whilst Christian Doidge picked up a knock in training.
We had more than able replacements with veteran defender McGregor lining up in defence and Kevin Nisbet spearheading our attack.
The home side made five changes to the side they put out at Easter Road and both teams went into the match in fine form following their respective undefeated starts to this campaign.
We were looking to keep it tight at the back in the early exchanges however we were lucky not to be punished in the second minute when Joe Newell’s attempted cross-field pass was cut out by Tomecak and his cross from the right was headed wide by Abass.
At the other end McGinn and Martin Boyle linked up well with the former’s driven cross cut out by the home defence at the expense of the game’s first corner kick.
HNK Rijeka started the brighter of the two teams and they were claiming for a penalty kick in the 11th minute when Prince Ampem went down too easily under the challenge of McGinn. The referee waved away their appeals.
Three minutes later and Robert Muric flashed a curling free kick just over Matt Macey’s cross bar after McGregor had fouled Jorge Orbegon.
The foul earned McGregor an early caution and he was soon joined by Joe Newell in the referee’s book as two of our key players were left to negotiate around 75 minutes on a disciplinary tightrope.
Despite HNK Rijeka enjoying most of the possession, we were retaining the ball well and taking the sting out of the game.
We were defending stoutly and on 28 minutes McGregor put his body on the line to block a close-range effort from Abass before Nino Galovic blasted the rebound wildly off target.
We looked a potent threat whenever we attack and were almost ahead in the 32nd minute when Jamie Murphy peeled off the left flank and drove inside before arching a wonderful effort towards the far corner of the goal and only a terrific save from Andrej Prskalo.
Ten minutes before half-time the deadlock was broken when Ampem’s early delivery was swept into the net from close range by Pavicic.
A disappointing goal for us to lose given how well we had defended until then, however we attempted to respond positively and from a Nisbet lay-off, Murphy forced another save from Prskalo at his near post.
Moments later the HNK Rijeka goalkeeper was again called into action to save an angled drive from Nisbet as we put the hosts under intense pressure.
In time added on at the end of the first half a mistake from Ryan Porteous gifted Orbegon an opportunity to race in behind the Hibs defence and from his lay off, Abass was denied first by a brave block from McGinn and then a wonderful reaction stop from Macey.
So, we went in trailing at the break despite more than holding our own and creating several good opportunities.
Muric and Hrvoje Smolcic had early sights of goal for the hosts without either testing Macey in the goal.
Having weathered the early pressure we would go on to enjoy our best period in the game and Newell should have done better from a shooting opportunity 20-yards from goal, only to blast his side off target.
We deservedly levelled on 55 minutes when Magennis burst into the home box and on his weaker left side he showed great composure to an angle a shot across Prskalo and into the far corner of the net.
Buoyant after the leveller we pushed forward for more goals with Nisbet having an effort blocked just in front of goal before Boyle was denied by another terrific save from Prskalo who was keeping his side in it at times.
We had grown into the game and appeared the side most likely to score next however the game would turn against us in the 65th minute when McGregor picked up his second yellow card of the evening for pulling down Obregon after being caught in possession.
It would prove a crucial moment as the hosts restored their lead less than two minutes later when Abass got the final touch to score from Muric’s corner kick.
We responded by replacing Murphy with Alex Gogic to shore up the defence, however we quickly lost a third goal with McGinn unfortunately heading into his net whilst challenging Abass for a cross ball.
Trailing and a man down, we were facing an uphill struggle, yet we tried to respond positively and get back into the game with Nisbet having an effort deflected over Prskalo’s crossbar for a corner kick.
HNK Rijeka however would take full advantage of the extra man and piled pressure on our tiring defence with Muric going close on 76 minutes.
Abass twice saw efforts flash just wide of Macey’s goal before HNK Rijeka scored with the final kick of the game. Substitute Busnja driving into the Hibs box and firing the ball beyond Macey.
A disappointing end to our European journey and we will look to bounce back from it quickly when we take on Kilmarnock at Easter Road this weekend.
HNK Rijeka: Prskalo, Galovic, Muric, Obregon (Busnja 77’), Pavicic, Ampem (Vukcevic 90’), Kresic, Cerin (Liber 65’), Tomecak, Abass, Smolcic, Substitutes not used: Frigan, Braut, Merkulov, Galesic, Lepinjica, Velkovski, Vuk, Mudrazija, Escovai.
Hibernian: Macey, McGinn, Porteous, McGregor, Doig, Doyle-Hayes, Newell (Campbell 85’), Magennis, Boyle, Murphy (Gogic 71’), Nisbet. Substitutes not used: Dabrowski, Samson, Stevenson, Wright, Gullan, Mackay, Brydon.
Referee: Donatas Rumsas (LTU)