On the back of a convincing win over Pegasus in the Senior Shield Eastern fans would have been forgiven for coming into this Sapling Cup game with some optimism, but they were swept away by a rampant Tai Po who themselves had lost last time out against Yuen Long. In the end, the Greens celebrated a 5-2 victory with 672 people coming out to Hammer Hill Road Sports Ground on Sunday, October 29th.
With the Sapling Cup demanding at least two under 22 players in each team, Eastern handed seasonal debuts to Yue Tze-nam and Lee Ka-wah, while Tai Po handed a start to Wong Chi-sum as well as captain Tan Chun-lok, being also an eligible under-age player.
The opening exchanges were lively as both sides had chances in the first ten minutes; Manuel Bleda seeing a header kept out for Eastern thanks to the strong wrists of Li Hon-ho, before the Greens went close through Yuto Nakamura and Dhiego Martins, both being denied by Yapp Hung-fai in the Eastern goal.
Around the 15 minute mark Tai Po were in front, thanks to captain Tan Chun-lok who side footed into the roof of the net from 14 yards, after being cued up by Igor Sartori. 1-0 quickly became 2-0 as Sartori was allowed to travel almost 40 yards – completely unchallenged – down the left, with Eastern defender Jo Tae-Keun being particularly guilty of allowing the Brazilian a clear run and the winger tucked the ball into the far corner.
Less than 10 minutes later and Eastern were handed a lifeline as some pushing and shoving in the penalty area resulted in Lee Chi-ho going down and Bleda sending the keeper the wrong way from twelve yards.
Any notion of a comeback was soon diminished with a quick fire double, as Tai Po extended their lead, first with a sublimely executed free kick from 30 yards by David Lazari, who netted his first goal of the season with a strike he will surely struggle to top this term. 3-1 quickly became 4-1 as the team from the New Territories won the ball deep into the Eastern half, as Dhiego Martins drove forward and slotted in Nakamura who slid the ball past a shell shocked Yapp Hung-fai.
4-1 down at half time, Eastern introduced Aleksandr Kokko and Xu Deshuai to proceedings as they looked to salvage an unlikely result. Xu was having an immediate impact on the right side of midfield and within ten minutes he pulled a goal back from a 20 yard free kick to the right of centre that the Tai Po goalkeeper will be disappointed not to have kept out. Xu then hit the crossbar with another free kick, although this time he certainly wasn’t aiming for goal as the set piece was delivered from next to the corner flag.
Eastern had the better of the play in the second half and with 20 minutes left should have made it 4-3 as the industrious Xu clipped a ball from the left that Diego Eli could only head over the bar when well placed and completely unmarked. As the game drew to a close and it became clearer that it wasn’t to be Eastern’s day, Tai Po finished the stronger and added a fifth to their tally as a rapid counter attack ended in Lazari netting his second of the game, following a run and pass by Sartori.
A much deserved 5-2 victory to the holders of the Sapling Cup as Tai Po make a terrific start in defending their crown. Eastern however still have defensive worries and will be very concerned at the ease in which they conceded so rapidly in succession on more than one occasion. Next up for them is a trip to Yuen Long in the league whilst Tai Po make the long trip south to play Southern.