For the first time ever, Hong Kong will be represented by three clubs in Asian competitions. Here’s how the Kitchee, Eastern and Lee Man camps reacted following Wednesday’s confirmation of the #ACL2021 and #AFCCup2021 groups.
Kitchee, Eastern and Lee Man now know the identity of their respective Asian opponents after Wednesday afternoon’s AFC Champions League and AFC Cup draws.
No league champions in Kitchee’s Champions League group
Premier League champions Kitchee, who were placed in Pot 3, were drawn into Group J along with Chinese FA Cup winners Shandong Taishan, Thai League 1 first half runners-up Port, and the winner of Playoff #2. The identity of the playoff winner will be determined on 14 April when Cerezo Osaka, who finished fourth in last season’s J. League, face off against either Melbourne City of Australia or Shan United of Myanmar.
“If you ask me whether this was a good draw for us, I would have to say that it was,” said Kitchee head coach Alex Chu. “We’ve dodged some of the teams which I believe to be strong teams, like the holders (Ulsan Hyundai).
“But we can’t take our opponents lightly. As I understand it, Shandong have made numerous personnel changes, bringing in a new foreigner (2020 K-League MVP Son Jun-ho). Port have performed well in their domestic league so far and their young players are improving quickly. If Melbourne City qualify, it’ll be the first time we’ve faced Australian opposition, which will be a challenge because of their physicality.
“Except for Australia, many countries have suspended their leagues, or they haven’t begun yet so it’s difficult to assess the strengths of each opponent. Once those teams are back playing, we’ll have more information to go on.”
The AFC announced Monday that the group stages for both the ACL and the AFC Cup would be played in centralized venues. Although the group stages for the East Region runs from 21 April to 7 May, Kitchee’s preparations will undoubtedly be affected so long as local football remains on pause. Chu believes that these two factors will put his and other Hong Kong clubs at a disadvantage.
“The players perform better at home,” he said. “They get a lift from being able to play in front of home support and as you’re aware, our win against Kashiwa Reysol (in Kitchee’s last Champions League foray, in 2018) came at home. I think (the centralized format) will have a big impact because Hong Kong clubs aren’t accustomed to being on the road for an extended period so, I believe it will put us at a disadvantage.
“When the domestic season will resume is unclear at this point, but the ACL matches start in mid-April. I hope that we can resume regular training and play matches as soon as possible so that our players can maintain their fitness, otherwise, we may need to consider travelling ahead of time to the centralized venue to train.
“Our players need to adapt to playing six matches over a three-week span. It’s important that we rotate and do frequent regen sessions. Our goal is to improve on the results from the last campaign.”
Kitchee were initially slated to take part in the qualifying playoffs for the ACL as Hong Kong’s 11th place association ranking in the East Region meant that Hong Kong were only granted 0.5 slots. But in December, it was confirmed that no clubs from North Korea had applied for an AFC club license, meaning that Hong Kong would be bumped up to 10th in the rankings. As associations ranked in the top ten are permitted to send their league champions directly through to the group stage, North Korea’s loss was Kitchee’s gain.
Bluebirds’ captain Huang Yang, who is in the autumn years of his career, has vowed to cherish every minute of this experience in light of this reality. In his comments to the media, he acknowledged the fortuitous nature of the path that has led Kitchee back into the ACL.
“It was’t our expectation to win the league last season while playing so many young players, nor, did we expect that the North Korean teams wouldn’t participate,” Huang admitted. “I believe that we’re going to use more young players (than during the 2018 campaign) in order for them challenge themselves. Let them use this experience to understand the gap between them and Asia’s best teams so that they can develop a mindset of closing that gap.”
During the 2018 ACL, the Bluebirds finished with 1 win and 5 losses. Like Chu, Huang hopes to improve on past results and added that many in the squad who played a part in the 2018 campaign hope to spring a surprise or two.
“For years, Kitchee have tried to put its best foot forward,” he continued. “Additionally, considering the pandemic and the state of local football, we hope to do something for our industry. Our motivation is for fans see that Kitchee can be competitive in Asia.”
Nice group and almost unbelievable that we missed all korean teams 😅💪 See u soon ACL 🤩 pic.twitter.com/IgbMtOKyeL
— Dejan Damjanovic (@Boske9) January 27, 2021
Kitchee have added two veteran players since the season was halted, signing Spanish holding midfielder Raúl Baena and Montengrin striker Dejan Damjanović. The latter, who is still awaiting travel documents to enter Hong Kong, told AFC Hub that he was looking forward to the competition.
“I said I wanted to play in the ACL, and I was a little bit surprised that I didn’t stay with Daegu. I thought that I would stay in Korea for one more year,” he said. “When this didn’t happen, I was looking for a team that will play in the ACL and luckily, Kitchee was interested and really professional about it. Everything was done really, really quickly – in a couple of days – so I’m really happy that I’m back in the ACL.
“I’m sure I can help; I’m feeling good and I’m more than motivated to perform well and get (the ACL scoring record). I know that (Kitchee) are the best team (in Hong Kong) so I’m sure we have some quality. Now, I’m there, we’ve added a Spanish (midfielder) there, and so, I hope that we’re going to improve the squad with one or two players more and I think that we can do well.
“My job will be done – don’t worry. We just need to start training as soon as possible and prepare well. I just need to catch up with my new teammates but I’m sure my experience and my quality can help Kitchee a lot this year.”
Eastern and Lee Man to lock horns in the AFC Cup
Just as the last time the AFC Cup was played, two Hong Kong clubs will start the competition in the same group. But, whereas Eastern qualified for the group stage as FA Cup winners, Lee Man’s route was less straight forward.
Hong Kong’s spot in the qualifying phase was supposed to have gone to the highest-placed team in the 2019-20 Premier League table, other than the FA Cup winners. This team had originally been R&F, but due to the club’s decision to fold, the Bees were next in line to receive the honour.
Lee Man were slated to play Taiwanese club Tatung in the first Preliminary Round, however, five days before the draw, it was reported that the side would not participate. Tatung later issued a press release clarifying that the Chinese Taipei Football Association had asked the AFC whether Taiwan would gain a playoff spot due to North Korea’s non-participation, but were told the negative. Therefore, the club imply that they had never entered the competition in the first place.
On Tuesday, the day before the draw, the HKFA published a notice on their website stating that both Macanese clubs, Benfica de Macau and Chao Pak Kei, had pulled out of the competition. Later, both clubs revealed that they were apprehensive over the need to travel to a centralized venue for the group stage, the possibility of a quarantine period upon return, coupled with the fact that all of their players held day jobs, were all contributing factors for withdrawal.
These events meant that only four clubs in the East Zone remained, eliminating the need for any qualifying phase. Eastern and Lee Man will be met in Group J by Taiwanese champions Taiwan Steel – also known as Tainan City – and Mongolian champions Athletic 220.
This season, the AFC Cup group stages have been reduced to a single round robin, with the East group set to be played between 14-20 May.
Qualification for Asia is the biggest milestone yet for the Bees, who are only in their fourth season of existence. Chan Hiu-ming, head coach of Lee Man, was proud of his club’s achievement but said that his focus is on the present.
“In the past years, the players have worked hard to get to this stage, and we hope to live up to the expectations that fans have for Hong Kong teams,” he said. “We’re going to do our best to compete, but if the Premier League season continues to be postponed indefinitely, it will harm the preparations of every one of Hong Kong’s representatives. We’ve reiterated over and over what our demands are, but these things are beyond our control and we can only hope that football will be back soon.”
Bees midfielder and vice-captain, Ngan Lok-fung, believes that the confirmation of Asian participation will give the squad a boost at training, but only if training can be resumed soon. He admitted that in order to regain match fitness, players would need at least a month of on-pitch training.
“It’s impossible to return to game shape without being able to train on actual pitches,” he said. “Anyone who says otherwise is lying.”
Lee Chi-kin, head coach of Eastern, believes that the two Hong Kong clubs are the class of the group. But, with no return to play on the horizon, he was concerned that fixture congestion during the restart will increase the risk of injuries.
“I hope that before the group stage begins, the domestic season will resume,” he stated. “But at that point, we will have the problem of having to compete on two fronts.”
As the East Zone consists of a single group, only the group winners will advance to the knockout phase. In addition, the champions of each zone shall receive $100,000 USD ($775,000 HKD) in prize money.