The arrival of the Year of the Rooster means it is time for Hong Kong’s annual Lunar New Year Cup. Essentially a festive show-tournament, the Cup has something of the flavor of the Boxing Day friendlies and test matches organized in other sports and regions.
Fans could have been forgiven for thinking this annual tradition was on the verge of petering out in recent years. The last two tournaments have featured only two teams, and in 2016, for the first time ever, no sides from outside Hong Kong were in attendance. This year, however, the field is stronger and the Cup in more apparent health, with local representatives Kitchee joined by three regional heavyweights: FC Seoul of the K-League, eight times OFC Champions League winners Auckland City, and 2016 Thai champions Muangthong United.
The Cup is played out in a four-team straight knockout format, with a playoff for third place.
Saturday’s semi-finals were closely-fought affairs. Auckland got the better of Seoul in the opener, settled by a tap-in from Argentine forward Emiliano Tade on the stroke of half time. It capped one of the game’s few well-worked passing moves. In a compact match of few chances, Seoul were in subdued form, despite a wealth of talent in their side including veteran internationals Kwak Tae-Hwi and Kim Chi-Woo. The Korean champions came alive only at the last, forcing a dramatic double save from Auckland’s Eñaut Zubikara in the final minute.
Kitchee found themselves trailing after 41 minutes against Muangthong, when Thailand striker Teerasil Dangda ran onto a hopeful through-ball to finish crisply past Wang Zhenpeng. Parity was restored nine minutes after the restart after Muangthong lost possession by overplaying in defence. When Matt Lam’s cross was not cut out, Yuen Long’s Diego Higino – playing for Kitchee on a one-off basis – was on hand to tap in for his temporary employers. No further scoring meant the tie went to penalties, and even the short-out was tight, with Kitchee eventually triumphing 5-4. Lam and Rufino were among those to score from the spot.
The Hong Kong team go forward to Tuesday’s final with Auckland, before which Seoul face Muangthong in the battle to avoid the wooden spoon.