Hong Kong suffered a narrow 3-1 defeat to UAE in their VAR-riddled opening game at the Asian Cup, while impressing with a courageous display that involved high pressing, aggressive defending, and a drive to produce constant threat against a team ranked 86 places above them.
The day has come. On 14 January, 17:30 Doha time, Hong Kong made their fourth appearance at the Asian Cup – and the first time since 1968 – squaring off with the United Arab Emirates. In the days ahead of the game, local sports media and fans were buzzing with excitement, recognizing that this is indeed a special occasion (let’s be optimistic here and not call it a lifetime occasion though).
As expected from recent games, Jørn Andersen selected a rather offensive starting XI: Matt Orr, Everton Camargo, and Max Poon Pui-hin as the attacking trifecta; Tan Chun Lok, Wu Chun-ming, and Chan Siu-kwan in the midfield; Li Ngai-hoi and Oliver Gerbig as centre-backs; Yue Tze-nam and Chan Shinichi as fullbacks; and of course captain Yapp Hung-fai in goal. Sean Tse, Helio and Junior were entirely missing from the match day squad due to recent injuries in the preparation.
Right from the start, Hong Kong showed that they don’t intend to sit back. Within the first minute, Everton nodded a ball towards goal, and soon later Li Ngai-hoi tried his luck with a shot from the distance. Both were rather harmless chances, but also an encouraging signal. This not to say that the United Arab Emirates were any less threatening though. The Emirati presented themselves as the dominant side (possession after 15 minutes, 75:25), but also had to work hard to deal with Hong Kong’s high pressing.
25 minutes in, Hong Kong fans were at the edge of their seat when the ball found Poon Pui-hin, but the leg of an Emirati player arrived just in time for a clearance. Everton then tried his luck to score his first goal at the Asian Cup (sometimes maybe a bit too reluctant to pass), before Hong Kong’s plan to keep the game close was shattered in the 34th minute. A VAR check confirmed a handball by Oliver Gerbig (although the additional yellow appeared a bit ludicrous for an unintended handball), and Sultan Adil converted confidently from the spot, sending Yapp in the wrong direction. 1-0 UAE.
Still, Hong Kong’s spirit was still alive and not shy to produce more chances with fast break throughs and long passes from the midfield, but just not enough boldness in front of goal.
Coach Jørn Andersen shouldn’t have had too much to complain about during half time, and decided not to make any changes (despite the high pressing strategy probably taking its toll).
Hong Kong couldn’t have started any better into the second half, when just three minutes in Everton delivered the perfect cross for Philip Chan Siu-kwan, who just had to flip it over the line.
The Hong Kong supporters may have been a bit too carried away, when they turned their backs to the field to do the poznan celebration, and probably not even seeing when Zayed Sultan took back the lead for UAE in the 52nd minute of the match.
In the 66th minute, Andersen replaced Yue Tze-nam and Max Poon with Stefan Pereira and 19-year-old Michael Udebuluzor, clearly sticking to the plan of pushing for another goal.
In the 72nd minute the Singaporean referee shocked even the local TV commentators, when he concluded after a VAR check that Li Ngai-hoi’s tackle wouldn’t warrant another penalty for UAE. A 3-1 lead would have probably meant an early decision at this stage, when both teams started to run out of stamina and cramping up. The last then minutes became therefore a relatively uneventful back and forth.
In the 95th minute, the referee may have had a change of heart, when he made a rather controversial penalty decision following VAR review, accusing Chan Shinichi of a foul. Yahya Al Ghassani made it 3-1 from the spot.
10 minutes into added time, Michael Udebuluzor scored from close range to make it 3-2, but the goal was eventually disallowed for a handball in the lead up of the goal in what was – to say the least – another questionable VAR decision.
Despite the eventual 3-1 loss, the positives of Hong Kong’s performance in this opening match definitely outshined the negatives – and we definitely look forward to seeing more of this team in this tournament.