It took a spectacular late goal from Lee Hong Lim to separate ten-man Eastern from Rangers in a drab tie at Mong Kok Stadium.
Until Lee’s strike in the 85th minute the game had seemed set for a 1-1 draw, with each side scoring a penalty in the first half. Defending champions Eastern dominated possession throughout, but settled slowly in the early phases, hesitant defending granting their visitors a number of chances to take the lead. Rangers looked to have spurned the best of these opportunities, with defender Chiu Chun-Kit missing a free header from five yards following a corner. A soft foul just inside the penalty area on 35 minutes, however, gave Jordi Tarres the chance to score from the spot.
Rangers’ lead was to last only ten minutes and was lost in much the same fashion it was gained; the faintest shove inside the box from a visiting defender gave Eastern their own penalty on the stroke of half time. Manuel Bleda, the hosts’ newly signed Spanish striker, did not err from twelve yards. The goal is his second in three games for the club.
Parity seemed a fair state of play at the halfway stage, Rangers’ doggedness and opportunism having offset Eastern’s superiority with the ball. And the second half initially offered little prospect of greater drama, both sides playing without vigour on a still and sultry evening. Time and again Eastern missed the killer pass that their possession promised, while Rangers’ forays consisted mostly of high balls into the channels or the box, where home goalkeeper Yapp Hung Fai was comfortable throughout. Yapp’s diligent attempts to recycle possession quickly were rarely matched by his outfield colleagues.
The dismissal of Eastern midfielder Diego Moreira on 63 minutes, for a second bookable offence, initially seemed to reinforce the stalemate.At this stage, one suspected both teams would settle for a draw, Rangers because it was all they could have expected from a difficult tie with the reigning champions, Eastern because it was all they could now expect having been reduced to ten men.
Slowly however, the sending-off did change the balance of the tie, and it was Eastern who eventually burst out to take the points. With impeccable tactical logic the home side began to push up, playing a higher line to compress the space and neutralise’ Rangers numerical advantage. Rangers spotted the opportunity for the quick through ball, but the athleticism of Eastern’s defenders was a match for the challenge. With veteran playmaker Bai He introduced for the home side late in the game, the gameplan seemed to be to sucker-punch Rangers from midfield. But it was still a bolt from the blue when Lee dropped deep to collect the ball before turning to place a beautifully arcing shot into the top corner of the Rangers net.
Man of the Match: Lee Hong Lim
STADIUM: Mong Kok Stadium
Photo: courtesy of HKFA.com