Auckland City triumphed 1-0 against hosts Kitchee in a flowing, sometimes rousing encounter at Hong Kong Stadium on Tuesday – the fourth day of the Lunar New Year. Match report by Matt Worth, photos by Rex Fok, Jeremy Greenberg, Ryan Kam, Christopher KL Lau. Continue reading
The arrival of the Year of the Rooster means it is time for Hong Kong’s annual Lunar New Year Cup. Essentially a festive show-tournament, the Cup has something of the flavor of the Boxing Day friendlies and test matches organized in other sports and regions.
Fans could have been forgiven for thinking this annual tradition was on the verge of petering out in recent years. The last two tournaments have featured only two teams, and in 2016, for the first time ever, no sides from outside Hong Kong were in attendance. This year, however, the field is stronger and the Cup in more apparent health, with local representatives Kitchee joined by three regional heavyweights: FC Seoul of the K-League, eight times OFC Champions League winners Auckland City, and 2016 Thai champions Muangthong United.
The Cup is played out in a four-team straight knockout format, with a playoff for third place.
Saturday’s semi-finals were closely-fought affairs. Auckland got the better of Seoul in the opener, settled by a tap-in from Argentine forward Emiliano Tade on the stroke of half time. It capped one of the game’s few well-worked passing moves. In a compact match of few chances, Seoul were in subdued form, despite a wealth of talent in their side including veteran internationals Kwak Tae-Hwi and Kim Chi-Woo. The Korean champions came alive only at the last, forcing a dramatic double save from Auckland’s Eñaut Zubikara in the final minute.
Kitchee found themselves trailing after 41 minutes against Muangthong, when Thailand striker Teerasil Dangda ran onto a hopeful through-ball to finish crisply past Wang Zhenpeng. Parity was restored nine minutes after the restart after Muangthong lost possession by overplaying in defence. When Matt Lam’s cross was not cut out, Yuen Long’s Diego Higino – playing for Kitchee on a one-off basis – was on hand to tap in for his temporary employers. No further scoring meant the tie went to penalties, and even the short-out was tight, with Kitchee eventually triumphing 5-4. Lam and Rufino were among those to score from the spot.
The Hong Kong team go forward to Tuesday’s final with Auckland, before which Seoul face Muangthong in the battle to avoid the wooden spoon.
The Hong Kong Premier League, whose revival from summer slumber was disrupted by postponements earlier in the month, picked up pace with a full weekend of fixtures in which three of the local game’s major powers reasserted themselves.
It took a spectacular late goal from Lee Hong Lim to separate ten-man Eastern from Rangers in a drab tie at Mong Kok Stadium.
Until Lee’s strike in the 85th minute the game had seemed set for a 1-1 draw, with each side scoring a penalty in the first half. Defending champions Eastern dominated possession throughout, but settled slowly in the early phases, hesitant defending granting their visitors a number of chances to take the lead. Rangers looked to have spurned the best of these opportunities, with defender Chiu Chun-Kit missing a free header from five yards following a corner. A soft foul just inside the penalty area on 35 minutes, however, gave Jordi Tarres the chance to score from the spot.
Rangers’ lead was to last only ten minutes and was lost in much the same fashion it was gained; the faintest shove inside the box from a visiting defender gave Eastern their own penalty on the stroke of half time. Manuel Bleda, the hosts’ newly signed Spanish striker, did not err from twelve yards. The goal is his second in three games for the club.
Parity seemed a fair state of play at the halfway stage, Rangers’ doggedness and opportunism having offset Eastern’s superiority with the ball. And the second half initially offered little prospect of greater drama, both sides playing without vigour on a still and sultry evening. Time and again Eastern missed the killer pass that their possession promised, while Rangers’ forays consisted mostly of high balls into the channels or the box, where home goalkeeper Yapp Hung Fai was comfortable throughout. Yapp’s diligent attempts to recycle possession quickly were rarely matched by his outfield colleagues.
The dismissal of Eastern midfielder Diego Moreira on 63 minutes, for a second bookable offence, initially seemed to reinforce the stalemate.At this stage, one suspected both teams would settle for a draw, Rangers because it was all they could have expected from a difficult tie with the reigning champions, Eastern because it was all they could now expect having been reduced to ten men.
Slowly however, the sending-off did change the balance of the tie, and it was Eastern who eventually burst out to take the points. With impeccable tactical logic the home side began to push up, playing a higher line to compress the space and neutralise’ Rangers numerical advantage. Rangers spotted the opportunity for the quick through ball, but the athleticism of Eastern’s defenders was a match for the challenge. With veteran playmaker Bai He introduced for the home side late in the game, the gameplan seemed to be to sucker-punch Rangers from midfield. But it was still a bolt from the blue when Lee dropped deep to collect the ball before turning to place a beautifully arcing shot into the top corner of the Rangers net.
Man of the Match: Lee Hong Lim
STADIUM: Mong Kok Stadium
Photo: courtesy of HKFA.com