Under the floodlights of Mong Kok Stadium and witnessed by 3,533 fans on the night, Tai Po edged past Taiwanese opposition Hang Yuen in their second AFC group stage match at home with a 4-2 victory. Meanwhile, Kitchee fell to their second AFC Cup loss in Pyongyang. Report by Adrian Kwong. Photos by Ryan Kam.
With Hang Yuen having lost to 4.25 (“April 25”) in their previous match, many would perhaps be forgiven for thinking this was a bit of a throwaway game for the home side. However, it was the visitors who nearly opened the scoring. Haiti international Benchy Estama launched a powerful free-kick on goal, only to strike the post, bouncing off goalkeeper Tsang Man-fai before trickling out of play. The Greens have dodged a bullet, and everyone at the ground reared back. We were in for an exciting night of AFC football indeed.
Nonetheless, the New Territories side reacted to that near miss by going a goal up in the 17th minute. Igor Sartori shook off his marker and lost his footing as he squared the ball into the box. Sandro could not get to it, but captain Wong Wai was waiting at the back post. The midfielder floated a cross back into the penalty area. On came defender Chak Ting-fung, who nodded his header past Hang Yuen keeper Huang Chiu Lin.
Perhaps buoyed by the early goal, Tai Po’s play began to relax, but were made to pay for it 16 minutes later. A freekick was given to Hang Yuen and even though Tai Po players packed the box, they left a curious gap on the right side of goal. Benchy Estama took full advantage in that defensive lapse, and fired the ball home with aplomb.
Again, Tai Po was forced to respond, and regained the lead through Brazilian talisman Igor Sartori. The mercurial winger received the ball from the left channel, drove through and neatly placed his shot into the left bottom corner. Strangely enough, a member of Tai Po’s coaching staff and Tsang Man-fai started having a go at each other, with the former taking the keeper to task for Hang Yuen’s first goal. They were restrained by several substitute players, while Sartori and his teammates were celebrating the goal on the other end of the pitch. Fans in the home sections scoffed. Giving a member of your own team an earful on the pitch after one had just regained the lead was unheard of and a public dent to team moral.
Right before the stroke of halftime, Greens midfielder João Emir attempt a shot from 30 yards out, perhaps hoping to replicate his first goal in the competition against Kitchee. Unfortunately, the shot sailed high and to the left. Tai Po led 2-1 at half time.
When play resumed, the Greens wrested control again early on, working Hang Yuen back and forth across the pitch in attempts to find an opening into the final third. A moment of hesitation by midfielder Jean-Marc Alexandre allowed Igor Sartori to steal the ball, allowing him to work around Huang Chiu Lin and to net his brace.
Having gone 3-1 up, Tai Po let their feet of the gas again, and were extremely lucky that Chen Ching Hsuan’s goal-bound effort rung the woodwork. The Hang Yuen players executed a series of neat, triangular passes before playing the ball up-field to to Benchy. The Haitian slotted the ball into the path of Joo Ik Seong, right between the two Tai Po defenders. The Korean made no mistake from 12 yards with only the keeper to beat, reducing the deficit to 3-2 for the Taiwanese outfit. Tai Po players were scatted too far up-field, and could only watch as they gave away such a sloppy goal. The aura around the fans began to have a tense tightness to it. Was this to be a “typical” showing from the Greens, to choke at the moment when they needed to win the most?
The mood only sank further in the 82nd minute. João Emir was tackled hard in the box and dislocated his shoulder, while the referee called for a penalty. Igor Sartori stepped up to seal his hat-trick, only for his shot to be keenly read by Huang Chiu Lin. A collective groan echoed around the grounds.
However, the Greens did manage to add a fourth goal to the tally in the dying embers of the game, when Igor Sartori’s swinging cross from the left was headed in by Philip Chan amidst chaos in the penalty area. There were muted celebrations from the fans and the team, knowing this was a performance well below par for the season. The district side need to reflect and improve drastically before the game against April 25 at the end of the month.
Earlier on the same day, Kitchee lost to April 25 in Pyongyang 2-0. From Kitchee’s official updates, the Bluewaves held their own against their North Korean opponents in the first half, but two successive mistakes in the second half meant that April 25 picked up all three points at home. As things stand, 4.25 SC lead the table with six points from two wins. Tai Po trail closely behind, also on six points, but one goal short on goal difference. Kitchee and Hang Yuen sit third and fourth respectively, with neither side notching points in the competition thus far. Tai Po will host 4.25 SC on April 30th at Mong Kok Stadium, and Kitchee host Hang Yuen one day later.
Photos by Ryan Kam