Triumphs and letdowns: The HKPL mid-season round-up

Photo: HKFA.com

The 2023/24 football season in Hong Kong has just reached its halfway mark. Offside.hk look back at the last six months to see if everything is going according to plan for the 11 Premier League clubs.

Hong Kong’s first appearance in the Asian Cup for in over 50 years meant that there was a lengthy break in the league calendar since December. Apart from some predictability, with Lee Man and Kitchee being found at the top, a pack of mid table sides are also battling for third place, while HKU23 and Sham Shui Po find themselves at the bottom. With affordable ticket prices and stadiums all across the territory, why not check out a ground near you before the season finishes in May?

Here is all you need to know. In the meantime, stay up to date with all the latest news by following offside.hk on Facebook, Instagram, X (Twitter), and Spotify.

Home: Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground

The league runners up of last season signed Paulissen, Anier, Paulinho, Dudu and Wu Chun-ming as they seek to win a trophy this year. Despite beating Kitchee in the league in September, Lee Man have since lost three times to their biggest rivals, in the Sapling Cup, the Senior Shield semi final and the Premier League Cup final. Without a doubt, Everton is one of the best players in the league, but the coaching staff have struggled to rectify the issue from last season, as he is often unwilling to bring his teammates better into play, opting to dribble and shoot rather than taking the passing option.

Anier and Everton have been scoring regularly, and the midseason signing of Li Ngai-hoi (despite the controversy surrounding the order of events as he left Rangers) shored up the backline with a local player who has become a fixture in the Hong Kong representative team at both Asian Games and Asian Cup. When playing for Hong Kong, Wu Chun-ming has been one of the best midfielders for the side, but his performances for Lee Man so far have been less convincing. Meanwhile, Dudu received his Hong Kong passport in February, allowing the team to field an extra foreign player.

So far this season, Lee Man seem to have sacrificed cup progress to focus on the Premier League, but beyond a high quality starting XI there are limited options, as highlighted by poor performances in the Sapling Cup, especially with Hong Kong internationals unavailable.

Although Lee Man are still three points clear of Kitchee in the league, fans are less optimistic. Lee Man were less than ten minutes away from winning the league against a 10-men Kitchee side last season, and must learn their lessons from that day, with the fixture list pitting these two against each other in another potential title decider to finish off the season. Every match is pivotal, and dropping points at home to Tai Po could come back to haunt them at the end of the season.

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Home: Mong Kok Stadium

After a treble-winning campaign last season, a shaky start – at least by their illustrious standards – saw a change of manager in September, with Kim Dong-jin coming in as interim caretaker and Alex Chu moving back to director of football. A disappointing campaign in the Asian Champions League did have a positive ending with an away win in Singapore, but they will rue three tight home defeats, losing all three 2-1.

Summer signings Aleksandr Damcevski and Ogenyi Onazi both left by Christmas, as they failed to convince. Newly naturalised striker Juninho has been clinical but prone to injury, and Jakob Jantscher was a lone bright spark in the ACL but has not hit the same heights domestically.

Kitchee have an experienced group of winners, with the likes of Helio and Fernando having won multiple league titles. But playing a host of foreign players offensively means that Kitchee have had to resort to an ageing local defence, where the lack of pace has been exploited on occasion. Recent results in the league have steadied the ship, with Charlie Scott looking assured in midfield and new signing Sherzod Temirov adding another option up front. Kitchee have won the Premier League Cup and the Senior Shield so far this season; despite being far from their best in the finals, the experience has got them over the line.

Last season saw a title battle go to the wire against Lee Man, and the last match day will see the two of them again finishing the campaign against each other. Lee Man drew first blood with a big win at Tseung Kwan O in September, but Kitchee are still hot on their heels in second place, and the trio of wins over the same opposition in the cups will fill them with confidence.

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Home: Tai Po Sports Ground

As the most popular and successful district football club of the decade, Tai Po have bounced back from a disappointing 2022/23 season, with league-winning manager Lee Chi-kin returning to the ‘Green Warriors’. A new era of ‘Kin’s army’ may be in the process of rebuilding, with a promising future ahead.

For now, Tai Po are reliant on Philip Chan Siu-kwan, who contributed match-winning goals against Eastern, Rangers and Southern, while Brazilian winger Luizinho has threatened defences with his pace and dribbling, although his four goals and three assists in 15 games do not accurately reflect his performances on the pitch. Tse Ka-wing continues to impress in goal, and playing a crucial role in securing a point away at Lee Man.

The winter signings of Biteco and the returning of Lucas Silva are likely to improve the lack of goals throughout the first half of the season, with Lucas alone having scored seven goals in his first four games across all competitions. Tai Po have made the semi-finals of the Sapling Cup, and while optimistic fans will have hopes of being the dark horse in the title race, third place is a realistic aim. Winning the Sapling Cup would be their first trophy in five years, since their historic league win in 2019.

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Home: Aberdeen Sports Ground

Southern are probably one of the best run clubs in the league and consistently punch above their weight. The reigning Sapling Cup holders have stable ownership and a proper coach in Yeung Ching-kwong.

They have a bunch of household names in Hong Kong football, blending both youth and experience. Japanese captain Sasaski Shu is talismanic, and newly capped Hong Kong international Stefan Pereira has been prolific since joining the club. Brazilian defensive midfielder Kessi is a classy operator, while young Ivan Ng in goal has a lot of promise, being Hong Kong’s third choice goalkeeper at the Asian Cup. Centre back Tomas Maronesi and attacking midfielder Ju Yingzhi add more experience.

Chen Ngo-hin and Soghi Ichikawa, on loan from Kitchee, have shown decent performances. Chen in particular scored a beauty of a goal against Lee Man in October, which will most likely be a “Goal of the Year” contender. Southern have also just brought in Leung Yau-wai, once seen as Hong Kong’s next great centre back, who played in Portugal, Thailand & Japan.

However, the main problem for the Aberdeeners is that once you look past the starting eleven, their options off the bench are very inexperienced, although attempts have been made to rectify this in January, through the signings of Leung Yau-wai, Togashi Ryoo, and two-times Macau Footballer of the Year Jackson.

The low point of the season was definitely getting knocked out of the FA Cup by Sham Shui Po, who have still yet to win a game in the league. But having recently qualified for the Sapling Cup semifinals, Southern are still on track to defend their trophy.

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Home: Mong Kok Stadium

The 2023-24 campaign is another season of development for a young talented squad, alongside some experienced operators. Ng Yu-hei has been one of Eastern’s star players so far, showing passion for the club alongside high performance levels, and is still only 17 years old.

Nowhere near challenging for the title these days, Eastern did get a good result (draw) away at Lee Man in the league. However, they also disappointed in the Sapling Cup, where they dropped points to HKU23 and HKFC.

Noah Baffoe has been a revelation up front, scoring twelve goals already in all competitions, including goals in the quarter final and semi final of the Senior Shield to set up a final with Kitchee, where Eastern performed admirably well, before Kitchee’s experience saw them over the line. Fans would prefer Eastern to be back at the top of the league, but finishing in the top four would be a solid season, given the schedule remaining.

The Sapling Cup performances have been disappointing and they have failed to get out of the group. Hong Kong captain Yapp Hung-fai continues to play well in goal, after nearly a decade at the club. Young right back Callum Hall has stepped up from the semi-pro leagues in Scotland to show his quality, filling in at left back and on the right wing. 15-year-old Gao Ming-ho has played regularly this season despite his age, and Tamirlan Kozubayev continues to be one of the better defenders in the league, while captaining Kyrgyzstan in all three matches at the Asian Cup. Meanwhile, Sun Ming-him has just left the club to join Cangzhou Mighty Lions in the Chinese Super League.

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Home: Tsing Yi Sports Ground

Rangers are probably one of the most infamous and peculiarly run clubs in Hong Kong over the years. There is a constant churn of players and coaches at the club. Experienced centre back Jean-Jacques Kilama retired in September, but owing to a player shortage and chaotic management he un-retired the week after and has featured in almost every game since. This was further demonstrated in January, where Li Ngai-hoi and Leung Hing-kit both terminated their contracts mid-season and signed with Lee Man and Sham Shui Po respectively.

Nonetheless, Rangers have some of the best performing players in the league such as Ibrahim Yakubu Nassau (currently leading the Golden Boot) and Yumemi Kanda. Young midfielder Sergio Chiu has done well as a 17-year-old in his first season, while Lau Chi-lok has been dubbed by fans as the ‘HK Vardy’ as he’s finally hitting his stride at 30 years of age, contributing nine goals and four assists this season.

Overall, the results have been alright, but you wonder how much better they could be without the constant chaos. They have beaten four of the five teams below them by a combined 23-0, but lost all their other league games. Perhaps they would be playing for more than the Sapling Cup (having now qualified for the semifinals) if they had more stability. Their attack should be able to get them into third in the league, but if players keep coming and going this may be too optimistic.

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Home Ground: North District Sports Ground (Sheung Shui)

North District have had a solid start to life in the top flight. They also brought in a lot of players from Resources Capital (RCFC) which has naturally helped with team chemistry.

All things considered, Coach Leung Chi-wing has done a magnificent job so far. Jordan Lam has contributed four goals and one assist from the wing, while Lo Kong-wai, who looked finished at Sham Shui Po, has had a resurgence. The foreign signings have been successful as well, with Kendy and Matheus Porto chipping in regularly with goals. Moreover, Nenem and Pedrao have become key members of the defence, despite their lack of experience.

North District may lack the talent of other mid-table teams on paper, but they definitely deserve to be in the Premier League, despite being thrashed 5-0 by Tai Po in February. They also performed courageously in narrow defeats to Southern and Kitchee, and scored a stoppage time winner against Rangers.

With the exception of a 5-0 defeat to Rangers, their Sapling Cup campaign has been impressive thus far, and a draw in their final game against Kitchee would see them into the semifinal. Critics may argue that North District have been a major beneficiary of Sapling Cup fixtures taking place during international breaks (leaving Kitchee and Lee Man short of senior players), but their opponents were still able to put out strong lineups.

The team have a fixture backlog due to stadium renovations, but still saw good crowds attending their home matches. Once they have played their games in hand, a top half finish is certainly within reach.

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Home: HKFC Stadium (Happy Valley)

HKFC is probably the most professionally-run amateur club in Hong Kong. On paper, they have got a weaker squad than last season, but they also have a tenacity about them that cannot be denied. Early season results were poor as they were still bedding in new players, but now they seem to have stabilised. The Football Club have done the double over RCFC, gained a point at North District, and entertained with some high-scoring draws in the Sapling Cup.

Lau Hok-ming looked like he had a limited future at this level. Due to injuries, he moved into central midfield and now he seems to have regained his confidence. Dominic Johns had an unsuccessful trial at Eastern at the start of 2023, but Cristiano Cordeiro recommended him to HKFC, where he scored five goals in all competitions. Gustavo joined after spending last season with Citizen, and has performed well in the middle and on the left hand side. Meanwhile, teenage right back Tim Chow has looked mature beyond his years, and is attracting interest from American colleges and European clubs.

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Home: Tsing Yi Sports Ground

After the departure of fan favourite Joan Esteva at the end of the 2022/2023 season, RCFC appointed inexperienced manager Ha Hyeok-jun. The club also experienced a complete overhaul with 18 departures, many of them including goalkeeping coach Ho Kwok-chuen leaving to newly promoted North District FC. Meanwhile, 14 players came through the door before the opening game of the season, with six being under the age of 21.

So far, the current season has definitely had more downs than ups for the Pink Army, which has contributed to a lot of questions about the coaching staff and the direction of the club. It took seven attempts before RCFC could get their first win, beating a poor Sham Shui Po side 1-0, but even by the end of November the club had only one win in their 11 games across all competitions. But then, out of nowhere, RCFC beat Tai Po 1-0 in the FA Cup. 16-year-old Mikee Lee (Lee Ching) scored an early goal in front of the Tai Po fans in true cup upset fashion.

Since then results and performances have improved with some great toe to toe battles with the likes of Eastern in the quarter final of the FA Cup and with both Lee Man and Rangers in the group stage of the Sapling Cup. In early January RCFC announced the signings of former Jeonbuk player Lee Yoon-gwon, American-Japanese midfielder/defender Kotaro Umeda and Korean centre back Kim Hyun-ho, following the departures of Caique Ribeiro, Bradie Smith and manager Ha Hyeok-jun (the latter was replaced by Director of Football Ho Shun-yin on a seemingly interim basis).

The side is still extremely young but with a few experienced heads in the squad the fans hope that the second half of the season can see the club at least compete in the league, grinding out results. HKFC completed the double over them in February, but they should have enough to finish outside of the bottom two. The hope is that other clubs do not see RCFC as a ‘walk in the park’ before they have even set foot on the pitch.

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Home: Hammer Hill Road Sports Ground (Diamond Hill)

Having only secured one league point last season, three draws this campaign has tripled this tally. The nature of HKU23 means that they will be limited to predominantly young inexperienced players, but former Hong Kong striker Lam Hok-hei (captain this season) and centre back Alex Dujardin have massively improved the side, although the latter has now left the club to China. An excellent 5-0 win over Sham Shui Po in the Sapling Cup pleased a lot of neutral fans. Nonetheless, there will always be looming questions over the future of the side: attendances are low, games are not competitive and there seems to be no clear plan for the team or its players moving forward. However, the HKFA seem committed to this project (despite the lack of progress in three seasons). Perhaps a first league win and not finishing bottom are possible this year?

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Home: Sham Shui Po Sports Ground

With Sham Shui Po, it always looks like one step forward, two steps back. The squad has too many young players, and a lot of the foreign signings have failed to deliver. Yet again there has been a change of manager mid season. Current coach Chan Ho-yin has a good CV, but as the saying goes, a chef is only as good as the tools at their disposal.

The off field marketing is spot on, but on the field is the complete opposite. At the bottom league as it stands, there is so much potential due to their location if only they could win games. Not even the loan signing of Hong Kong international midfielder Ngan Cheuk-pan from Kitchee has made a difference. A penalty shoot out victory in the FA Cup against Southern has been the clear highlight of the campaign, leading them through to an unlikely semifinal.

January has seen them bring in the experience of Rangers goalkeeper Leung Hing-kit and winger Wellingsson de Souza. The latter is an intiguing singing: He represented four clubs in 13 years in Hong Kong but has been a free agent since leaving Kitchee 18 months ago and counts as a local player having received his Hong Kong passport in 2021.

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Special thanks to Lester Chan (all clubs), John Wong (all clubs), Lorraine Leung (Lee Man), Anson Fong (Eastern), Roy Choi (Tai Po) and Ralphy Dray (RCFC) for their help in compiling these profiles.

Here is all you need to know. In the meantime, stay up to date with all the latest news by following offside.hk on Facebook, Instagram, X (Twitter), and Spotify.

Still not sure about which team to follow? Check out Ralphy Dray’s Hong Kong Football on Tour to get an idea of the atmospheres of different clubs and stadiums.

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