Eastern SC face a tricky tie in this year’s Asian Champions League qualifier as they come up against continental newcomers FLC Thanh Hóa FC of Vietnam at Mong Kok Stadium on Tuesday, January 23rd. Offside.hk’s Ben Bennett takes a look at Eastern’s chances and Bill of the “Hanoi Football Show” shares some insights about the opponent.
Eastern enter the competition in poor form domestically sitting a massive 14 points behind league leaders Kitchee SC after only ten games, as well as being knocked out of the Sapling Cup with a group game to spare. Their inconsistent home form has hindered their progress significantly with three wins and four defeats from their seven fixtures at Mong Kok Stadium so far, including an embarrassing 1-8 defeat to Kitchee last time out. This home form will need to be addressed if they are to get beyond the second preliminary round and face Suwon Samsung Bluewings in the last round of qualifying.
In terms of squad selection, Brazilian forward Michel Lugo has been added to their foreign quota alongside the previously registered midfielder Diego Eli and talismanic striker Manuel Bleda. On paper Eastern’s squad would appear in similar strength as the one that entered the group stage last year. Replacing Josh Mitchell as the Asian registered player is vastly-experienced Japanese central defender Yusuke Igawa, who captained his previous club Kawasaki Frontale against the Blues in last season’s 1-1 draw in Hong Kong.
The 1-1 draw against Igawa’s Frontale was Eastern’s marquee result from last years campaign, which saw crushing 7-0 and 0-6 defeats to Guangzhou Evergrande as well as 0-5 and 0-4 reverses against Suwon and Kawaski respectively. With rivals Kitchee taking Hong Kong’s automatic group stage slot this year, Eastern face a daunting task of reaching the same phase as last year, but the Blues can at least use the experience they gained to their advantage.
FLC Thanh Hóa do not have such experience in continental competition to call upon and the club in it’s current guise is a new one having formed in 2009 out of the disbandment of FC Thanh Hóa who themselves were formed in 1962.
Thanh Hoa come into Tuesdays clash with their last competitive fixture way back on November 25th in the final round of league games for the 2017 season. In a strange twist of fate, however, champions Quảng Nam could not obtain the relevant AFC license, therefore leaving the door open for Thanh Hóa to represent Vietnam in this seasons competition.
Experienced coach Mihail is no stranger to Asian football having coached in the Middle East with Al Riyadh and Al Jaish, with his last job coming with Zakho Sport Club. This stint in Iraq followed a three-year spell as the technical director for the Romanian national team although this is his first job in East Asia. The Yellows star man is undoubtedly Senegalese striker Pape Omar Faye who has struck 65 goals in 105 games for the club across two spells which began with a loan stint in 2011. The 31-year-old netted 12 goals last season and was ably supported by talented Vietnamese attacking midfielder Nguyễn Trọng Hoàng who is one cap shy of reaching half a century for his country. In the off season, the Warriors have also added set piece specialist Vũ Minh Tuấn who joins from league rivals Than Quảng Ninh where he regularly troubled the scoresheet from midfield including February’s goal of the month in last season’s league campaign.
We talked to Bill (Twitter: Bill @soccervietnam), Vietnamese football expert and co-host of the “Hanoi Football Show” podcast, to share his insights of what to expect from the opponents.
“Thanh Hoa set the pace in the 2017 V League for nearly 20 rounds before missing out on their maiden title on an inferior ‘head-to-head’ with eventual champions Quang Nam. Based about 150km south of Hanoi, new coach Marian Mihail will lead the side on their continental debut. The club owners rang the changes pre-season with Romanian Mihail replacing Ljupko Petrović as coach and bringing in a number of exciting new signings including Vũ Minh Tuấn & Bùi Văn Hiếu (Quang Ninh), who both boast continental experience, as well as keeper Trần Bửu Ngọc (Can Tho). The experience of captain Danny Van Bakkel and Trần Đình Đồng should feature in defence, while Omar Pape Faye will lead the line, having scored 11 in 19 last season (he was suspended for the other 7 matches!), supported by the exciting Lê Văn Thắng.”
Tickets for the game are priced at $80, $60 and $30 for concessions and a good crowd is expected at Mong Kok Stadium, where it promises to be an exciting evening of football and one that gives under-pressure Eastern coach Szeto Man-chun a genuine chance to put his team’s stuttering start and awful reverse to Kitchee behind them in order to reignite their season.