Ollie Watkins’ devastating hat-trick helped ruthless Aston Villa mark their return to European football with a first-leg Europa Conference League play-off demolition of Hibernian.
Hibs hero John McGinn’s Easter Road homecoming dominated much of the pre-match build-up, but England striker Watkins will rightly grab the headlines after a phenomenal display at a sell-out Easter Road.
Following a bright start, the Scottish Premiership side could not deal with their clinical Premier League visitors upping the ante as Watkins glanced in a sublime header before nodding in a second at the back post.
Leon Bailey then powered in a close-range header of his own to put Villa – regarded as tournament favourites by many – in complete control at the break in their first European game in 13 years.
Watkins thought the offside flag had denied him a treble just after the interval, but the VAR reviewed his first-time finish past David Marshall, with Douglas Luiz’s penalty sealing a record-equalling European win for Unai Emery’s side.
Next Thursday’s second leg at Villa Park will be about damage limitation for Hibs and Lee Johnson, who watched his side crumble in his 500th game as a manager after his brave attacking line-up briefly rattled the visitors early on.
In the opposite dugout, four-time Europa League winner Emery took no chances with his XI, including big-money summer signings Pau Torres and Moussa Diaby starting.
But with a boisterous home crowd on top of them, Villa had to weather a short storm from Hibs, which included a weak Martin Boyle volley and an equally tame penalty shout.
But after Watkins planted Lucas Digne’s inch-perfect ball into the far corner, it was about how many Villa wanted.
They got five, but it could have been nearly double had Marshall not denied Bailey with a fine stop before Diego Carlos and Ezri Konsa both had headers narrowly miss the target.
Hibs fans are not daft. When your side comes up against a club who have spent a reported £80m this summer in comparison to your £1.5m, this result can be expected.
Johnson’s XI was brave, as was his approach, but a goal really had to come in those opening exchanges for Hibs to stand a chance before their energy sapped.
Against this calibre of opponent, defending has to be flawless and attacking has to be clinical. In a nutshell, that is what Villa demonstrated.
Emery said in the build-up to this that he wanted to “write new history” with the 1982 European Cup winners. With the squad at his disposal, and his serial winning mentality at this level, he may well scribe a successful new chapter at Villa Park.
Hibernian manager Lee Johnson: “First of all, I was proud of the club for getting to this point. I was disappointed with the scoreline. I felt the shape was okay in the first half, but in terms of moments in our control we weren’t good enough.
“The gulf in quality showed after that period in the first 20 minutes. Too many times we gave the ball away, too many times we were offside. That was the lesson for us and we hope we can learn from this.
“There’s huge differences between the budgets and we’re doing well to compete at this level and today is a big lesson for us.”
Aston Villa manager Unai Emery: “We know we really played a high level, and didn’t let them play how they usually play. The end result is maybe not deserved, but we deserved to win, and our respect of them is playing how we played.
“We know they are very good in the transition. We know they have good long balls and crosses. We tried to keep control with the ball, and we did it.
“I am happy, but everything we did was with respect. In this competition, first we have to be in the groups, and second, trying to do something here.”
Both sides return to league action at the weekend before next Thursday’s second leg (20:00 BST) in Birmingham as Hibs host Livingston on Saturday (15:00) and Villa travel to Burnley the following day (14:00).