There’s nothing quite like Friday night football under the Mong Kok floodlights to kick off another season in the Hong Kong Premier League, and the competitions’ two heavyweights Kitchee and Eastern went head-to-head for the opener in what turned out to be a closely-fought encounter. Ben Bennett was there to round-up all the action from the match.
Lining up with a familiar 3-4-3 formation, Kitchee included new signing Lucas Silva in their starting XI while Eastern began with Jamies McKee as the central striker in a 4-3-3 formation, with new signings Jo Tae-keun and Lo Kong Wai playing centre back and left wing respectively.
The early exchanges were scrappy with Bai He entering the referee’s notebook with barely five minutes on the clock in a half of football that also saw Lam Zhi-gin, Alex Akande and Jo Tae-keun pick up yellow cards for tough challenges. Chances however were few and far between with Kim Bong-jin and Akande both sending rasping drives over the Eastern crossbar. The two best chances though fell at the head and feet of Eastern’s Lugo, who glanced a right-wing corner over the bar when well placed and also blasted a shot over from fifteen yards following a mix up in the Kitchee defence that goalkeeper Wang Zhenpeng was perhaps fortunate to get away with.
Almost straight after the restart, the chance of the game presented itself to new-boy Lucas after good work from Lam Zhi-gin down the left saw the unmarked Brazilian head well wide of the Eastern net with fans anticipating the first goal of the game. The scrappy nature of the first half continued into the second as Kitchee’s Matt Lam and Eastern’s Tsang Kam-to both received bookings for miss-timed tackles as chances remained at a premium.
With twenty minutes remaining, however, the deadlock was finally broken. Krisztian Vadocz drove through the middle of the pitch and benefited from a fortuitous ricochet to leave him with a clear run on goal from which he slotted past Eastern ‘keeper Yapp Hung-fai from 10 yards to give the reigning champions the lead.
In response, Eastern introduced new signing Aleksandr Kokko to proceedings on the 75th minute to lead the line and move McKee to a more familiar wide position. Geared for a tense finale, the remainder of the game only saw Kitchee come close to extending their lead with Sandro twice going close in the last ten minutes, the first of which drew a fine save from Yapp. With plenty of effort from both sides and with the game drawing to its conclusion, Eastern began to tire and Kitchee looked by far the more likely to grab a clincher than Eastern score an equaliser.
Referee Lau Fong-hei eventually blew the final whistle on the seasons opener which saw the HKPL start 17-18 like it ended in 16-17, with Kitchee beating their closest rivals, albeit this time in a much tighter and edgier affair. On first viewing there is tinkering to be done for both sides as the season progresses, with Kitchee experimenting with their wide options in the absence of Fernando and Eastern seeking to bed-in their new Finnish international striker Kokko and welcoming back the injured Manuel Bleda in the hope that they can fire the Blues to domestic success.