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HK vs Cambodia: When a win is not enough

Christian Annan Appeals for a penalty

On September 1st the Hong Kong Representative Team hosted its first home game since November 2015, when almost the entire city witnessed the historic draw against China – and despite failing to advance to the next round of the World Cup qualifiers, the campaign seemed to open up a bright light at the end of a dark tunnel.

As a result, expectations are much higher than they used to be, as the Hong Kong team presented itself of being capable of stepping up their game among other Asian football nations. So what to expect from the current 147th in the world when taking on Cambodia, who are ranked 33 places below? Ignorant as we are to the impressive development of the South Asian guests, anything else than a victory would have been a disappointment – and with a 4-2 win it actually appears that Hong Kong delivered. But did they? Instead of praising the team, offside.hk tries once again to take on the role of devil’s advocate.

Hong Kong started with a relatively offensive 4-1-4-1 formation – with Alex Akande up front, aided by Xu Deshuai on the right and Jaimes McKee on the left. Sandro and Itaparica stayed a few metres behind, from where they operated as attacking midfielders. In defense, Helio and Kilama started the game as centre backs, flanked by Cheung Kin Fung (left) and Cheng King Ho (right). Huang Yang was in his favoured position as a classic No. 6, and as usual, the team was captained by goalkeeper Yapp Hung Fai.

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And it started off well. Hong Kong tried to adopt a possession-based strategy and presented themselves as confident hosts. They were backed by roughly 3,500 people on the stands, which was a bit less than expected given the euphoria that has surrounded the team in the last 12 months. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was good – although the booing of the anthem has become more of a habit now than a real form of protest.

But back to the game. Hong Kong had the perfect start to the game, when in the 11th minute Jaimes McKee added another goal to his international goal tally, although this time he clearly benefitted from a perfect assist given by Kitchee forward Sandro (though the whole move was actually initiated by Itaparica who had brilliant foresight when delivering a long pass into the box). So while Hong Kong’s attack showed some moments of brilliance, particularly from the central midfield – an area that the representative team (and also many local clubs) have been struggling with, it was the defense – recently the pride of Hong Kong – that seemed to have declared a state of emergency. Both Kilama and Helio struggled to ease off pressure, making it far too easy for the technically skilled Cambodian playeres to get the ball past them. Kilama in particular seemed to lack confidence on the ball, in turn reflecting his lack of game time in Tianjian Quanjian’s first team in China League One. While alternatives such as Festus Baise and Chan Wai Ho were missing due to various reasons, it would have been a great opportunity to give a chance to local talent such as Kitchee centre back Li Ngai Hoi, who somehow didn’t make the cut this time.

Again, in attack, it was Itaparica who made the difference, scoring the kind of goal that he has been regularly delivering for his team in China – and the reason why he is held in high regards with Xinjiang Tianshan at the moment. A few moments later, Hong Kong could count themselves lucky when the referee pointed to the penalty box, after McKee had been brought down by a Cambodian defender. To be honest, 9 out of 10 referees might have decided differently. Although it didn’t matter much this time around, it was a kind reminder that Hong Kong can rely on luck a little too much, which – let’s not forget – was also necessary to beat Maldives in the away game.

During half time, coach Kim Pan-gon decided to take off Helio, Cheung Kin Fung and Akande and replaced them with Roberto Affonso Jr., Jack Sealy and Lo Kwan Yee. While Roberto Affonso took over the centre back position, Sealy was put in charge of the entire right side. This meant that Cheng King Ho had to change to the left, while Kitchee captain Lo Kwan Yee found himself in the unusual position of central midfielder. Eventually, even Xu Deshuai had to move into the centre to make room on the right. However, it didn’t seem that the players could actually handle these changes – and instead of a clear match plan, the game descended into chaos. Paired with the missing form of some key players, this could have gone easily wrong. In the 61st minute, Cambodia’s No. 11, Chan Vathanaka, perfectly exploited this insecurity and scored the second goal after a terrible mistake, for which all Hong Kong’s defenders clumsily contributed. Maybe, 3-2 would have actually been a fairer result – meaning, that the Hong Kong representative team would have just come out on top with a narrow victory. Things didn’t necessarily lighten up during the last 20 minutes either, as Kim brought on Lam Ka Wai, 38-year-old Chris Annan and Tai Po defender Tan Chun Lok.

With Xu Deshuai, Itaparica, and Jaimes McKee now all missing, the attack looked even more lifeless than before. Yes, Lo Kwan Yee sealed the win from a corner set piece – but counting on a header from the Kitchee captain is not necessarily a safe bet. Despite all these changes, four players remained on the bench – Wong Wai (who might have been a more interesting choice than Annan in the last 20 minutes), and Eastern midfielder Leung Chun Pong, who would have probably felt more comfortable in the positions forced upon Xu and Lo. Fong Pak Lun and South China’s Andy Russell also remained as unused substitutes.

So despite the 4-2 victory, the main question should be, ‘Has the Hong Kong team improved after all’? Just two years ago, wouldn’t have games such as these easily ended in a draw? Yes, that could be true, but it is the lack of real progress that should be the worrying sign. Shortcomings in tactical flexibility and knowledge are still blatant, and maybe we should be honest enough to attribute the increase in class more to the arrival of naturalized individuals (in particular Sandro and Itaparica), rather than an actual collective development. In fact, the team seems to remain on a stagnant level.

It is about time to prove that the World Cup qualifiers were not just a coincidence. Maybe similar performances would actually be possible if the team can count again on absentees such as Festus Baise, Chan Wai Ho, and Lee Chi Ho, and their defensive skills are indeed urgently needed, but what about the future of the team? Local talents are not given enough attention in friendly games, while the current match plans that the players are able to implement seem extremely limited.

The next home game will be held on October 11th, when Hong Kong will host Singapore at Mong Kok Stadium, 5 days after Cambodia will try to take revenge in Phnom Penh. I do hope we see a slightly different team there – how about you?

 

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