Urged on by the roar of 4,434 fans at Mong Kok Stadium, Tai Po edged out Ryomyong on penalties after 120 minutes of stalemate on Wednesday night, and booked their place in the AFC Cup group stage for the first time since 2010.
The first leg in the North Korea ended with a nil-nil draw, which was favorable for Tai Po playing the return match at home, at least on paper. However, Tai Po played a grueling game in the rain against Lee Man in the league just days before the second leg, and that was bound to have some effect on the physical and mental sharpness of the players.
One day before the game, coach Lee Chi-kin revealed during the press conference that first team regulars Lee Ka-yiu and Sandro came down with Influenza B; coupled with Igor Sartori also battling sickness, fatigue and niggling injuries from a long season. Nonetheless, the mood around the Greens camp was upbeat. Supporters of the New Territories side were confident their team could do just enough at home to progress in the competition.
When the night of the game finally arrived, people flocked in droves to the stadium. The grass was smooth, the stadium bright, and the fans hungry for a good showing from the home side. Nearly everything was perfect (except for an overburdened ticket office) and tensions were palpable as the teams made their entrance onto the pitch.
Both clubs flew out of the traps from the opening whistle at 8 pm sharp. It didn’t take long for Tai Po to register an attempt on goal, as Leung Kwun-chung let loose a belter that was blocked by the opposition keeper eight minutes in. João Emir took a crack at goal as well a minute later, but the effort was well off-target.
Ryomyong contained many young players that were expected to step into the DPR Korea national team in the future, and just like the first leg, their energy and eagerness was on full display. The Greens, however, stuck resolutely to the game plan, stifling many dangerous balls before launching one counterattack after another.
Try as they might, the players and fans couldn’t find a way past the defense of the North Korean league runners-up in the first half. A few golden chances came and went, the final touches just tricking past the wrong side of the post. The stalemate continued into the break.
The second half was underway and Tai Po’s Chan Siu-kwan nodded Igor’s corner cross just wide of the left upright, while Sandro’s shot was smothered by the North Korean goalkeeper. The frustration around the stadium was building from both ends and amongst the supporters, who were perhaps more determined than the team to not give their North Korean counterparts an inch of space. Both teams were beginning to flag from the exertion, but they battled on.
Perhaps fearing that Ryongyong were marginally fresher in the second half, Harrison Sawyer, Chung Wai-keung and Jean-Jacques Kilama were all introduced late into the game to try to pin back the opposition. Although all three players ran themselves ragged, the teams could not be separated still.
Extra time came, and went. Ryomyong players were struggling with legitimate cramps, and the Greens were panting just as hard. The match had no other option but to turn to penalties.
The fans called for silence as Igor Sartori stepped up to take the first penalty. The mercurial winger had a knack for scoring spectacular goals, and did not disappoint the fans as he placed the ball into the top left corner, giving the keeper no chance. So far, so good in a nervy situation!
Ryomyong’s turn, and Tsang Man-fai earned the glory of the night with a save. The shot lacked power and the Tai Po keeper leapt to his right to block with his palm. The save buoyed the home side and the away side suddenly faced immense pressure to stay in the tie.
Joao Emir and Eduardo Praes put their penalties away with aplomb, Emir placing his nearly identical to Igor. Praes took a long winding run-up, and his powerful shot sneaked just under the keeper and into the back of the net. The North Korean custodian must have kicked himself afterwards when Harry Sawyer’s penalty was a mirror to Praes’.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong fans rushed behind the goal, and every time a Ryomyong player would step up, phone lights flashed into life and shone onto the pitch in a cheeky attempt to put the visiting players off their game. It’s as if a real concert of Leon Lai was taking place, and the fans were just waving along to the music.
Unfortunately, the visitors duly put away their penalties as well, and nervousness returned to the ground. Up steps Sandro, and a hush fell. Bothered by sickness and laboring with injury, fans were wondering if there would be a repeat of the penalty miss by the tall Brazilian Hong Kong international.
But the ex-Kitchee hitman wouldn’t miss again, and his decisive penalty took Tai Po back into the AFC Cup group stages after a near 10-year absence. Tai Po are placed in Group I, alongside Kitchee, DPR Korea champions April 25, and Taiwanese minnows Hang Yuen FC. The Greens will take on Kitchee first as the “away” team in Mong Kok Stadium on April 3rd.