Hibernians could become the first Maltese club to reach the play-off round of a UEFA club competition should they manage to retain the narrow lead as they host Riga FC of Latvia in the second leg of the UEFA Europa Conference League at the Centenary Stadium on Thursday, kick-off at 20:00.
A goal by Andrei Agius on the 70th minute had, in fact, handed the Paolites a narrow win in Riga last Thursday and therefore a positive result on Thursday would enable them to secure a clash with the champions of Gibraltar, Lincoln Red Imps, who were eliminated from the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League by Slovan Bratislava after eliminating Fola Esch of Luxembourg in the first round of the UEFA Champions League and losing to CFR Cluj of Romania in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League.
Hibs entered the UEFA Champions League as they replaced Hamrun Spartans but were eliminated by Flora Tallinn of Estonia with a 0-5 aggregate score but they bounced back with a 7-3 aggregate win over SS Folgore Falciano in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Europa Conference League.
It will be no easy task for the Paolites as Riga, the champions of Latvia for the past three years, have nothing to lose and will be all out to overturn the result and repeat the feat of 2019/20 when they reached the play-off stage of the UEFA Europa League after losing to Dundalk on penalties in the first round of the UEFA Champions League, eliminating Plast Gliwice and HJK Helsinki in the second and third round respectively of the UEFA Europa League, both thanks to the away-goals rule, losing out to Copenhagen in the play-off round with a 2-3 aggregate score.
Hibs are only the fourth Maltese club to reach the third qualifying round of a UEFA competition after Birkirkara in 2016/17, Valletta in 2019/20 and Floriana last season – all in the UEFA Europa League.
Unlike the Paolites who were set to play their first league match on Thursday – a match against Gzira United which has now been postponed to Monday, Riga have already played eighteen matches from the Latvian Virsliga and are currently second on 38 points from eighteen matches, two behind leaders Rigas FS who have two games in hand.
Coach Stefano Sanderra could not count on the injured Matthew Calleja Cremona while new goalkeeper Ibrahim Kone is also in doubt after sustaining an injury in the first leg. Ferdinando Apap was also forced to leave the pitch injured in Riga.
A draw or a win would see Hibernians through. On the other hand, following the abolition of the away-goals rule, a win by one goal for Riga would force extra-time. A win by more goals would put the Latvian champions in the next round.