Damjanović distraction untimely for title contenders Kitchee


Kitchee are currently mired in a legal dispute with star striker Dejan Damjanović which is unlikely to be resolved before the end of the season. The club could well win the treble without him, but they could do without the distraction.

Everything seemed rosy for Kitchee only a month ago. The Bluewaves had won 25 of 27 matches this season and it appeared as though the remainder of the season would be a coronation for the club. That Kitchee would become the fourth club in Hong Kong football history to complete the quadruple seemed inevitable.

Things change quickly in football. Kitchee went from holding a commanding position in their Sapling Cup group to missing out on the knockout stage altogether. The club also missed the chance to open up a five-point gap on Lee Man, the second placed team in the table, which would’ve allowed them to clinch the title before the final matchday. Making matters worse, it was revealed that the Bluewave’s relationship with talisman striker Dejan Damjanović had deteriorated to the point where head coach Alex Chu feels that he can no longer field Damjanović again.

For those who haven’t followed the events, here’s a recap:

Entering 10 April, Kitchee knew that they needed to take all three points against Eastern in order to secure a berth in the Sapling Cup knockout stage. They managed only a 2-2 draw in the end, and though the Sapling Cup is without question the least important competition domestically, it was a disappointment for a club who strive to win every available trophy.

Despite the fact that this was a must-win game for the club, Damjanović’s name was nowhere to be seen on the team sheet. When Chu was questioned post-match about his decision to drop his team’s best player, the coach would not reveal more than “disciplinary issues” as his rationale.

The match was Kitchee’s first since the March international break. Prior to this, Kitchee had lost to Rangers in the Sapling Cup on 15 March and to Tai Po in league play on the 19th, which turned out to be Damjanović’s final appearance. Both losses, combined with the draw against Eastern, put Kitchee on a three-match winless run for the first time in three years.

The club rebounded and briskly swept aside Southern the next weekend, winning 5-0 without their Montenegrin marksman. However, it was after the match where more details of the situation were revealed.

Damjanović has scored or assisted in 72 goals for Kitchee since his arrival in 2021. (Credit: The AFC)

In mid-December, Damjanović had asked for permission to return to his home country to visit his friends and family before Christmas. His request was denied, but went anyways. According to his match data, Damjanović featured in the FA Cup quarterfinal against Sham Shui Po on 3 December, but did not play against Resources Capital on the 18th. His next appearance was on Christmas Day in the Senior Shield semifinal against Lee Man. It is likely, therefore, that he had returned to Montenegro in the three-week period between the Sham Shui Po match and the Lee Man match.

According to Chu, the striker was fined for missing training and having left Hong Kong without approval. “He admitted that he had made a mistake and the matter was deemed to have been resolved, but (over the week of 3 April) we received a letter from his lawyer demanding repayment of the fine,” the coach claimed, before adding that the letter included a threat to escalate the case to FIFA, if necessary. “Perhaps he felt that he has become more valuable to the team recently.”

Kitchee president Ken Ng denied that the decision to freeze Damjanović out of the squad was related to the striker’s contract, which expires on 31 May. When asked whether the situation was complicated, Ng disagreed and stated, “For me, it is very easy to deal with,” implying that there was an opportunity for the two sides to reconcile if the striker were to withdraw the letter. The president told reporters that Damjanović was still training with the first team and the decision to use him or not was up to the head coach.

After Kitchee won comfortably again last weekend, Chu was asked again for an update on the situation. The coach confirmed that he would not use Damjanović for the title decider against Lee Man on 7 May – perhaps drawing a line under his time at the club.

Damjanović has not commented publicly about the situation.

Chu has frozen Damjanović out of the squad, just like he did with Baena and Manias. (Credit: Kitchee)

Kitchee are in the midst of a historic season. Though their chances of winning the quadruple are gone, there remains a strong case that this Kitchee team is one of the greatest teams that Hong Kong football has ever seen.

The club have scored an average of 4.35 goals per match, a number not seen since the Sixties. Even if the Bluewaves were to be held scoreless against Lee Man, their average goals for would remain above four, making them the first team since the 1963-64 Kitchee side to score more than four a game.

At the back, this team is one of the tightest defensive sides in history, having conceded only 0.29 times per match. Should they keep a clean sheet against Lee Man, they would become the first team since the 1985-86 South China side to concede less than 0.3 goals per game.

It should be noted that the ’63-64 Kitchee team played in an era where goal scoring was high and the ’85-86 South China team played in an era where goal scoring was low. But this fact, coupled with the axiom that the players of today are fitter, stronger and faster than ever, only makes the achievements of this season’s Kitchee team even more special. It should be noted that both the ’63-64 Kitchee and ’85-86 South China teams were crowned champions of their respective seasons.

All of this brings us back to Damjanović and his contributions to Kitchee’s success. Since making his debut for the club on 27 February 2021, he has scored or assisted on 72 of the 196 goals that the Bluewaves have scored in all competitions – representing a 36.7 percent goal contribution. In fact, since 2021, Damjanović has scored 38 goals in the league – nine more than the next nearest goal scorer.

The Premier League’s top scorers since the 2020-21 season. (Credit: Transfermarkt)

Anyone who has watched Kitchee will know how integral the talisman striker is to the team. Apart from banging in goals, Damjanović likes to drop into midfield to orchestrate attacking moves, often dragging a defender out of position to mark him. This creates space in behind for Kitchee’s other talented attacking players to exploit. He also seen tracking back at times to win back possession, even at his advanced age.

To be clear, Kitchee still have more than enough talent to persevere in his absence. They remain favourites to add the league and the FA Cup to their trophy haul this season which already includes the Senior Shield.

Yet, as the club are well aware of, anything can happen over 90 minutes of football. It takes only a momentarily lapse, a wobble, or a bad refereeing decision in any of their remaining matches for Kitchee’s statistical achievements to be all for naught. To enter the stretch run without their star man is not something the club could’ve anticipated, but one wonders if the situation could’ve been managed better.

Furthermore, it’s what happens after Damjanović officially leaves the club that is the bigger question. Kim Shin-wook was brought in on a contract that runs until 2026 on the premise that he would be Damjanović’s successor, but the Korean has yet to play a full 90 minutes for Kitchee. When Kim has played, he has failed to show any signs that he’s likely to score his first goal for the club. Chu has admitted multiple times that Kim has yet to reach peak fitness, but eventually patience will run thin for those who have to sign the cheques.

There is a break clause in the former South Korean international’s contract which the club can trigger if Kim fails to make a certain number of appearances. Whether Kitchee can still trigger this option, or whether they will choose to terminate his contract in another way over the summer, remains to be seen.

Kim was supposed to be Damjanović’s successor, but so far he has looked like a pale shadow of his former self. (Credit: inmediahk)

Whether foreign players will be put off by Chu’s handling the of the situation also remains to be seen. The head coach has demonstrated a willingness to freeze players out of his squad if they have no long term future at the club, preferring instead to rip the Band Aid off as early as possible.

There is no room for sentiment at the club. Raúl Baena will forever go down in Kitchee lore as the man who scored the goal that put the Bluewaves into the AFC Champions League knockout stage for the first time, but even he was left out of the team for the final five weeks of his contract. As was Michalis Manias, who was initially groomed as Damjanović’s successor, but was only named in the squad once in his final two months at the club.

That Chu and Kitchee have decided to engage in a game of chicken with one of their greatest signings in recent history – and perhaps, ever – is odd for a club who have mostly avoided this type of drama. It may well work – and if they continue to win in spite of Damjanović’s absence – then this saga will soon be forgotten.

But if it doesn’t – and Kitchee fail to win the league – it will be rightly pointed to as a distraction that could have been avoided if either side weren’t so hard-headed. Failure to win the league would not only mar the potentially historic season that Kitchee have put together. It would mean dropping out of the Champions League group stage into the preliminary round where a matchup against a side from China, Japan, or Korea looms. This could spell all sorts of jeopardy for a side whose financial projections would’ve likely included annual qualification for the Champions League group stage.

This jeopardy is much bigger than the one posed by leaving out their best player against Lee Man or Eastern.

To Top