Despite an encouraging team performance, Hong Kong was not able to stop Lebanon from winning the penultimate 2019 Asian Cup qualifying game on November 14th at Hong Kong Stadium. The narrow 0-1 defeat, in front of 10,109 supporters, eventually came down to Tan Chun-lok’s inelegant foul which resulted in his immediate send off. The subsequent penalty, scored by Hassan Maatouk, was the only goal of the night.
Coach Kim Pan-gon opted for a slightly more conservative line up, with Jordi Tarres and Jaimes McKee up front as strikers and Huang Yang, Tan Chun-lok and Wong Wai in the midfield. Andy Russell started as centre back – ahead of Roberto Affonso – in a 3-5-2 formation.
Hong Kong began the match with pomp, gaining more possession and pressing deep into Lebanon’s half. However, the Reds failed to produce compelling opportunities. The only chances were Xu Deshuai’s long range shot at the 4th minute mark and another attempt by Jordi just 10 minutes later, which was blocked by a Lebanon defender.
Despite Hong Kong’s dominance, Lebanon captain Hassan Maatouk remained a consistent threat in counter attacks. His pace and agility made the evening of Fernando Recio increasingly stressful, as he was frequently targeted via overhead passes. At the 10th minute, he cut in from the left side, but Andy Russell stopped his shot.
Hong Kong’s dangerous moments in the first half were mainly limited to set pieces and crosses. Wong Wai’s free kick in the 16th minute found Russell, but his header was well saved by Lebanon keeper Mehdi Kahlil. Soon after, Dani delivered a cross to Jordi, but his header was too weak. The best chance had Dani in the 39th minute, when his shot was tipped over the bar by Mehdi.
A few moments later, the evening would take an unexpected and tragic turn, when Tan Chun-lok made a dreadful decision. Instead of clearing the ball, he kicked Samir Ayass in the groin. The Qatari referee immediately awarded a penalty to Lebanon and a straight red card to the Tai Po midfielder. Some have argued that it was a controversial decision, as Tan Chun-lok’s foul was not intentional. Facing an agitated crowd, Captain Hassan Maatouk kept his cool and converted from the spot, giving Lebanon a 0-1 lead. During stoppage time, Andy Russell was pushed from behind by a Lebanon defender, but this time there was no whistle to be heard.
In the second half, Hong Kong continued pressing forward in the hope for an equaliser, despite being down to ten men. However, most of the crosses failed to find Jordi or McKee inside the box, who are both not the classic centre forwards who could make proper use of such balls. Meanwhile, Lebanon exploited their one-man advantage, whereas Hong Kong tried pressing higher up in the pitch and launching counter attacks.
Still, Lebanon had several chances to extend their lead, but captain Hassan Maatouk was either stopped by Yapp Hung-fai or the diligent Hong Kong defence. Especially Andy Russel played an excellent game, which should guarantee him another call-up any time soon.
The closest Hong Kong came to an equaliser in the second half, was a Xu Deshuai cross from the right side, which almost surprised goalkeeper Mehdi Kahlil. Coach Kim Pan-gon eventually put on Lam Ka Wai and Sandro for Huang Yang and Wong Wai. However, these substitutes had little impact and Hong Kong could only rely on long balls.
By now, Lebanon started to run down the clock and keep possession – and despite some last minute efforts by Lam Ka-wai and Andy Russell to deliver the lucky punch in stoppage time, it was not enough, and Hong Kong succumbed to Lebanon in what could have been at least a draw if the home side would have had a tiny bit of luck.
The result means that Hong Kong now have to win their last qualifying game against North Korea, away in Pyongyang, in March 2018, which is going to be anything else than an easy task.
Another dreadful news is that the loss to Lebanon will probably also lead to Hong Kong losing their current fixed group stage spot in the Asian Champions League. Starting from 2019, the champion of the Hong Kong Premier League will only enter the qualification round – and if unsuccessful – join the AFC Cup.
Additional reporting by Tobias Zuser
Photos by Christopher KL Lau and Dennis Lo