With a result completely at odds with pre-match predictions, Eastern managed to restore their pride after last week’s demoralising defeat away to Guangzhou Evergrande, salvaging a point against much-fancied visitors Kawasaki Frontale, in what was a historic night for Hong Kong football.
Given the significance of this game – the first ACL fixture to ever be hosted in Hong Kong – the demand for tickets far outnumbered the supply, again bringing into question the decision not to host Eastern’s Champions League fixtures at Hong Kong Stadium. Nonetheless, a packed out Mong Kok Stadium made for a fantastic setting, with Eastern perhaps benefitting from playing in familiar surroundings.
The game started at a frenetic pace, with both sides looking to rise to the atmosphere created by their respective fans. The quality of the Japanese side was evident from the start. However, Eastern looked dangerous on the break, with Lee Hong-lim and Jaimes McKee attacking with purpose on either flank. But with just 13 minutes on the clock, Eastern’s chances were helped massively, courtesy of a controversial decision by referee Mohamad Sarray. As Spanish talisman Manuel Bleda broke into the Kawasaki penalty area, following a delightful pass from Bai He, he was taken down by young defender Tatsuki Nara. The referee deemed the offense worthy of a red card for Nara, in addition to awarding a penalty, which was coolly slotted home by the ever-confident league top-scorer. One-nil up and with a numerical advantage, the mood in the stands had gone from desperately hopeful to quietly confident in a matter of moments.
Shockingly, Eastern also had a probably rightful claim for another penalty just a few minutes later, as a Tsang Kam-to cross appeared to strike the arm of Kawasaki skipper Yusuke Igawa. But despite consulting with the linesman, who would have had a perfect view of the situation, play continued. The remainder of the half was played out without incident, with Eastern perhaps the slightly more adventurous going forward, reaping the benefits of their numerical advantage. Despite this, the score remained 1-0 at the break, which was the antithesis of what would have been predicted 45 minutes before.
As the second half got underway, it was immediately clear that Toru Oniki must have had strong words to say to his side during the break, as the visitors quickly began to assert their dominance on the game. Despite being down to ten men, they began to attack in waves, and it was only a matter of time before this pressure paid dividends. The equalising goal eventually came in the 52nd minute, as 20 year-old speedster Kou Itakura managed to get on the end of a looping ball, which had been deflected goalward, sliding the ball under the onrushing Yapp Hung-fai. The vociferous pocket of away supporters were sent into frenzy. But Eastern, to their credit, did not allow themselves to become demoralised by this setback, and continued to play with belief.
The team constructed attacks of their own rather than sitting back and playing for a draw. Eastern had a great chance to regain their lead, as a powerful header by Roberto Affonso crashed off the crossbar before being hacked away in desperation by the stunned Kawasaki defence. Minutes later Josh Mitchell almost got on the scoresheet when he came close with another header, but his effort was cleared off the line after it had beaten keeper Shota Arai, much to the chagrin of the galvanised home support.
These two attempts seemed to scare the visitors into action, as the remaining exchanges consisted of wave after wave of Kawasaki attacks. Brazilian striker Rhayner was unlucky to see two efforts saved by Yapp Hung-fai, while a free-kick from a great position was sent harmlessly over by Kentaro Moriya. With the clock ticking ever closer to the end, the home fans were to endure another two minutes of agonising pressure, as Kawasaki forced two corners in quick succession, both of which were ruthlessly dealt with by the increasingly unflappable Eastern defence.
The game was finally brought to a halt amid scenes of confusion, as the referee awarded Eastern a free-kick at the other end in a favourable position, in an incident which saw Rhayner given his marching orders for a second yellow card. But then the referee elected to blow the full-time whistle, a decision which drew strong protest from the Eastern players. Despite this bemusing end to proceedings, the result was greeted with joy in the stands, as the achievements of the Eastern players in earning this unlikely point was not lost on the home supporters.
Credit must go to serial record-breaker Chan Yuen-ting, who can now add ‘First Hong Kong coach to earn a point in the ACL’ to her ever growing list of achievements. The attacking prowess of Eastern has long been known domestically, but the real heroes tonight were the backline, led by experienced campaigners Yapp Hung-fai and Josh Mitchell, who stood firm in the face of intense pressure in the closing minutes to see out this result. For Kawasaki Frontale, this will merely go down as two points lost. But for Eastern and the Hong Kong football community as a whole, this night will live long in memory.
EASTERN: Yapp Hung-fai, Josh Mitchell, Diego Eli, Bai He, Manuel Bleda, Tse Man-wing, Roberto Affonso, Lee Hong-lim (Ju Yingzhi), Tsang Kam-to (Cheng King-ho), Jaimes McKee, Leung Chun-pong (Xu Deshuai)
KAWASAKI FRONTALE: Shota Arai, Tatsuki Nara, Yusuke Igawa, Shintaro Kurumaya, Takayuki Morimoto, Koji Miyoshi (Yu Kobayashi), Kentaro Moriya, Rhayner, Kenta Kano (Yusuke Tasaka), Kou Itakura (Eduardo Neto), Michael Fitzgerald