What can we make of Hong Kong’s first victory in the 2019 Asian Cup qualifying campaign? Who are the players the national team can rely on? And is there still a glimpse of hope to make it to the finals? Zinc Yeung brings you the talking points after the successful game against Malaysia.
Safiq Rahim’s Red Card
Although Malaysian head coach Nelo Vingada insisted that Safiq’s horrific stamp was not intentional, there was no doubt that the referee had to give the Malaysian captain his marching orders. Unsurprisingly, his sent off was very costly to the guests.
Malaysia were left with no strikers in their squad due to injuries of both Shahrel Fikri and Darren Lok, and therefore they decided to deploy Safiq Rahim as a false nine. In fact, this was very effective in closing Hong Kong’s midfield down. There were 2 midfielders (Huang Yang and Wong Wai) in Kim Pan-gon’s 3-4-3 formation and Jordi came back frequently to help, while the Malaysians got three in the midfield and Safiq also frequently dropped down to the midfield, making it four versus three. Hong Kong was kind of outnumbered by their opponents, which made it very difficult for the hosts to get the ball forward.
As we can see, Hong Kong’s limited chances before the red card were created not by the midfield, but firstly by Roberto Affonso coming from behind in a nice link-up play with Jaimes McKee, ending with a good cross that Karikari failed to direct towards the goal. Another time it was a misplaced pass by the Malaysia defense that was picked up by Jordi who then hit the bar with an attempt from outside the box.
But all that changed after the red card. Firstly, Malaysian players lost their cool, as we can see from Mohamed Syamer’s booking after he had thrown away the ball in the wake of a minor foul. This may have also affected the concentration of the guests during the following freekick, which resulted in the opening goal.
In the second half, the tactical advantage for Hong Kong showed even more, as Malaysia could no longer disrupt Hong Kong’s build-up play by crowding the midfield. Hong Kong got most of the possession and the midfield could deliver the ball to the flanks much more often, which also laid the foundation for the second goal of the night. Credits go mostly to Jordi who was the key in the midfield.
Jordi the Savior
Before Jordi could represent Hong Kong, Kim Pan-gon’s tactics were kind of straightforward, consisting mainly of long balls to fast players like Jaimes McKee, Godfred Karikari or even Alex Akande, which was most recently displayed in the match against North Korea and the following away game in Malaysia. One of the possible reasons was that there were no players who had the skill and vision to play in an attacking midfield position behind the striker.
Kim had tried to use Sandro, who never really managed to fill that spot, as he is rarely able to hold up the play and create chances for the forwards ahead of him. Moreover, Sandro is usually deployed as a striker at Kitchee, so he was kind of lost when he was used in the attacking midfield whenever he played for Hong Kong. Lam Ka-wai would probably be a well skilled alternative for that position, but limited playing time at Kitchee made it difficult for him difficult to find the way back into the squad.
When all hopes were lost, Jordi obtained a HKSAR passport and was available for selection against Laos and Malaysia. The Spaniard was much more familiar with his role as attacking midfielder than other players, as he finds himself in a similar position behind Denis Lima at Lee Man. Jordi’s presence in the midfield helped to retain possession and create chances despite having been out-numbered in the midfield before the red card, and he eventually scored the opener for the second match in a row. In addition, Kim seems to trust Jordi a lot, so the team relied less on long balls and instead tried to find a working linkage between midfield and forwards.
The Rise of Wong Wai
The 2013/14 Young Player of the Season was the only one in the starting lineup who was still in his 20s, yet his performance amazed local fans. After having suffered a horrific leg-break in the 2015 Guangdong-Hong Kong Cup, his career appeared to be over, but his determination brought him back to professional football, first with Pegasus and later at Tai Po.
Having earned call-ups to the Hong Kong team for several times now, Wong Wai’s time to shine came in the away match at Malaysia, when he substituted Chan Siu-ki and injected a new boost of energy into the midfield. His passing eventually led to Alex Akande being fouled inside the box, although Sandro missed the crucial penalty. Wong Wai shone again at the international friendly against Laos when he delivered countless beautiful passes and even scored his first goal for Hong Kong.
Partnering with Huang Yang in the midfield this time, there was a lot of pressure from the opponents, but Wong Wai kept his cool most of the time, and even provided an assist with a freekick. Yes, Jordi was the star of the match, but Wong Wai was probably equally brilliant.
Can Hong Kong qualify to the Asian Cup finals?
There are two more matches coming up in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers for Hong Kong: at home against Lebanon and away against North Korea. In theory, two wins would be required to guarantee Hong Kong a place in the final round.
Lebanon will be a tough opponent as they just beat North Korea by 5-0 and also Hong Kong lost 2-0 in the first round of the qualifiers. However, one interesting point to note is that Hong Kong proved to be much better while playing at home, turning a 4-0 defeat against Jordan in the Middle East into a hard-fought goalless draw at Mong Kok Stadium a few months later. So maybe Hong Kong can once again make use of that boost in familiar surroundings.
The mysterious North Korea is still a strong team despite the recent humiliating loss to Lebanon. Several of their players have been earning their spurs in European leagues and their physical approach to the game proved to be difficult for Hong Kong players to handle. Especially in Pyongyang, the hosts would be difficult to beat. However, if Hong Kong would manage a win against Lebanon, a 0-0 or 1-1 draw could be sufficient in their last game to proceed to the finals.
When Sandro missed the last-minute penalty last month, it looked like Hong Kong’s Asian Cup dream was over. However, with Jordi’s arrival and the rise of Wong Wai, Hong Kong definitely look different now and there might be still some hope that we can watch Hong Kong among Asia’s best 24 teams in the United Arab Emirates in 2019. You may say we are dreamers, but we are not the only ones.