Tai Po crowned Premier League Champions

Photo: Tai Po FC

Saturday, May 4th, was a big day for Hong Kong football. As the season is drawing to a close, the title chase came down to the wire between two unlikely clubs: district team Tai Po of the New Territories, who have never won a top-flight title since their founding in 2002, and R&F (HK), the feeder team for CSL side Guangzhou R&F, who “parachuted” into the league in 2016.

And what a game it was, as the Greens came from behind to overtake the Guangzhou satellite club in the last twelve minutes of the game in a rain-drenched Yanzigang Stadium.

The atmosphere was electric before kickoff, but even as the rain was pouring down on the coverless pitch, both sets of fans were belting out chants and exchanging abuse from their sections. All the away tickets were sold out before this game (thankfully filling more than 99 seats this time) and the anticipation was thick enough to cut with any knife of your choosing. R&F had the better chances in the opening exchanges, with both Roberto Affonso and Serge Deble threatening the visitors’ goal. Tai Po looked uncertain and wary, being unable to get at the second ball, while the midfield gaping open at times for the home side to exploit. Roberto had a second shot from outside the box spilled by Greens keeper Tsang Man-fai, but could not capitalize as the letter upended the R&F captain with a powerful clearance.

In a rare foray into the opposition final third in the first half, Tai Po captain Wong Wai angled a dipping, curving shot at goal that unfortunately just went over the crossbar. Both sets of fans were well and truly on their feet, jeers and boos and taunts echoing around the wet ground. Straight down the other end flew R&F, with Giovane da Silva testing Tsang Man-fai with a strong header.

Tai Po had a second chance to open the scoring in the 35th minute, with Lee Ka-ho and Sandro combining well, but the forward’s header was well denied by home keeper Zhou Yuchen. However, the visitors’ hearts suffered a huge blow on the verge of halftime. An R&F counter attack enticed towering defender Eduardo Praes into a rash sliding challenge. Serge Demble skipped ahead with only Tsang Man-fai to beat, and the frontman made no mistake from inside the box. R&F drew first blood, and the Greens seemed a shade shell-shocked.

The home fans were loving it. They suddenly had the chance to upset the applecart and take the fight to the last day of the season. Nonetheless, the Tai Po supporters were resolute, knowing that nothing was decided till the final whistle. The 12th man tried their best to swing the momentum back in their team’s favour.

Tai Po began to turn the screw in the second half, as they fought tooth and nail for an equalizer. João Emir had an excellent freekick that just missed the right side of Zhou Yuchen’s goal, and the Shandongese keeper had to be alert to keep out a dangerous bouncing header by Michel Lugo shortly after. Tai Po kept plugging away, and the clock kept ticking. 60 minutes passed, then 70 minutes… was it not to be for the New Territories team?

But as they say, fortune favors the bold, and Tai Po were able to break even thanks to a magnificent stroke of luck orchestrated by the back of Sandro’s head. Substitute Chung Wai-keung tore up the left side of the pitch and sent a beautiful cross into the middle, only for Zhou Yuchen to get there a fraction of a second ahead of Sandro. However, the keeper decided to parry the ball instead of holding on, which resulted in a rebound off the back of Sandro’s noggin and into goal. The away end broke into hysterics and the home crowd was silenced. Sandro kept patting the back of his head as he wheeled away in celebration with his teammate. The momentum has well and truly shifted.

Tai Po pegged R&F inside their own half and unleashed waves after waves of pressure in search of the winning goal. With ten minutes plus stoppage time to go, the Guangzhou team needed a win to contest for the trophy, and yet they could not break free from the Tai Po pressure.

Four minutes from time, who else but Sandro gave Tai Po the lead. Wong Wai dribbled into the box from down the right and passed back behind him to Igor Sartori. The Brazilian maestro then sent the ball towards the penalty spot, where Sandro waited, surrounded by three R&F defenders. The lanky striker controlled the ball and spun, his shot nutmegged Roberto and just glanced the right post into the net.

R&F players sank to their knees, while Tai Po players reached for the stars in celebration. New Territories fans were in ecstasy, and the barriers were shaking hard, threatening to come undone under the pressure of bodies straining to break onto the pitch. The home side tried desperately to get back into the game, launching long balls upfield for Deble and Godfred Karikari to chase, but to no avail. The whistle sounded, 1-2: A new champion has been crowned, with a game to spare.

Tai Po became the first district side to win the top division since 1962-63 (when the league was won by Yuen Long), and the first proper district team in the new era.

While Tai Po faced R&F in Guangzhou, Kitchee travelled to Sham Shui Po to face Hoi King. In a surprising result, the Bluewaves only forced the already-relegated Kingsmen to a draw in the dying minutes of the match. For much of the season, Hoi King emerged from most of their game battered and bruised, often outshone by the quality and experience of the more established Premier League teams. With little to play for but their pride, mercurial midfielder Kim Minki stunned the near 580 strong crowd in the opening minutes. Faced with several men in blue, the South Korean let loose a howitzer from 30-odd yards that evaded everyone to nestle at the back of the visitors’ net. Just six minutes in, could the newcomers gain another impressive scalp?

Kitchee then spent much of the game desperately clawing for an equalizer, with Fernando and Jordi Tarrés in the thick of it, but time and time again, the former champions came close, only for the ball to either ending up on the wrong side of the posts, or being smacked away by keeper Felix Luk. Indeed, Kitchee could have given away a penalty late in the second half, as Kim Minki was brought down in the box after a one-on-one with Li Ngai-hoi. However, the referee waved away the protests, but replay showed that the Kitchee defender may have caught Kim on the foot before hastily drawing back.

Nonetheless, Kitchee finally forced a breakthrough four minutes from time. A high corner into the box was headed back into the mass of bodies by Helio, where it found the thigh of Jordi Tarrés. The Spanish striker raced with the ball back to the center circle for the kick-off, but a comeback was not to be. Each team finished with a point, and Hoi King could hold their heads up high with their display.

At Aberdeen, Southern waged their own fight against Pegasus at home, eventually moving up to third place after brushing off the Flying Horsemen 3-1. The Aberdeeners’ loss to Tai Po in the previous round of fixtures meant that they were out of the title race. Nevertheless, this season has been mightily successful for the district side, with a top four finish assured and a semi-final with Yuen Long in the FA Cup beckoning. Pegasus, on the other hand, came into this game following two losses from the last two games.

The two teams traded half chances until the tenth minute, when Pegasus defender Wu Chun-ming’s pass was intercepted, and Southern launched their trademark counterattack. Emmet Wang passed neatly to Krasić in the middle of the park, who in turn set loose Wellingsson de Souza down the left channel. The striker easily drove into the Pegasus box and slotted home.
Mahama Awal tried to bring the visitors level nearly right away, but was denied by the goalpost. Eventually, just past the half hour mark, Pegasus midfielder David Lazari pulled one back, as his freekick evaded keeper Tse Tak-him, following a rebound off a Southern player.

However, the tie was short-lived, as Shay Spitz restored the lead for the home side following an exquisite team move. Wellingsson de Souza sent a cross into the six-yard box, which was further flicked on towards Spitz in the middle. The Kiwi defender side-footed into the bottom right corner, and Southern led 2-1 at the break.

The teams continued to trade chances after the restart. Chan Siu-ki came closest with the visitors, but his dipping shot just landed at the roof of the net. James Ha also had a decent header blocked well by Pegasus keeper Zhang Chunhui. Nikola Komazec would finish the game in style for Southern, as his rebounded effort crossed the line for the final score of 3-1. Brazilian striker Dheigo Martins drew all defenders to him before passing to the Serb, who struck first time at the near post. Zhang Chunhui made a sliding block, but the deflection fell back kindly to Komazec who made no mistake the second time of asking. The whistle sounded, with Southern picking up all three points.

Sunday rolled around in Yuen Long as the Tangerines took on Eastern in their final home game of the season. An absolute goal-fest saw Eastern come out on top by a score line of 4-3. True to their style, Yuen Long played a very aggressive pressing and running game, which proved very difficult for Eastern to contend with during the opening phases of the game. Moser nearly opened the scoring for the home side, as he bore down on goal, only for his powerful shot to swerve just past the left upright. Lee Oi-hin should have scored for Yuen Long following a great pass from Moser into the box, if not for defender Lima Pereira guarding the goal line.

However, it was Eastern would draw first blood through ex-Tangerine Everton Camargo on the half-hour mark. The burly winger charged onto a Lam Ka-wai pass, rounded the keeper and fired at goal, bouncing into the top of the net despite the best efforts of the Yuen Long defense. Eastern’s other winger, Xu Deshuai opened his account this season five minutes from half time, rising highest to nod home Lee Hong-lim’s cross.
The Yuen Long defense became unglued again when Everton raced between the central defenders, only to slip as he took aim. The clearance fell to Robson Shimabuku, who opened his account with a sidefooted effort from just outside the box. The score-line turned 3-0 just before the halftime whistle.

Cleiton came on for Yuen Long as the game got underway for the second half, in a bid to boost the attacking prowess of the home side. Yuen Long would score two in the span of 3 minutes. The first courtesy of a Tomas Maronesi header, who then turned provider for Chan Kwong-ho to plant home. The comeback was well and truly on. Or so it seemed. Everton Camargo proved himself a bane of the men in orange again, as he brushed past defenders on the touchline and scored from the tightest of angles. The two-goal cushion restored for the visitors, Yuen Long had to chase the game again.

The Tangerines managed to close the game in the 71st minute. A looping free kick from Celiton was headed back into the six-yard box by Wang Ruei, and slotted home by Moser to bring Yuen Long back within a single goal. Unfortunately for the New Territories side, they were unable to find the equalizer, and Eastern closed out the game as victors, bagging all three points.

The last game of the weekend saw 364 fans witness Dreams ruthlessly crush Sapling Cup winners Lee Man 6-0 at home in Tsing Yi. Nothing really of note occurred until nearly halfway through the first half, as Nacho Martinez slotted the ball through for Jonathan Acosta to run onto. Unfortunately, the Argentinian midfielder could not make his shot count. Dreams did not need to worry though, as they got on the score sheet just a few minutes later. Marcos Gondra drove into the Lee Man box before giving Lee Man keeper Pan Tsz-kin no chance with a vicious drive into the net.

Dreams widened their lead again when a powerful shot was denied by a wonder save from Pan Tsz-kin, only for the rebound to find Jordan Lam in the right place, at the right time to convert. Despite continued dominance on the ball, there would be no more goals in the first half, and the teams retreated to the changing rooms at half time.

Lee Man did not get a sniff at goal until the 51st minute, with Tam Lok-hin knocking a high shot at goal that was only just denied by To Chun-kit in the Pink-and-Black goal. Right at the other end, Dreams almost punished the visitors for that effort, with Martinez powering the ball just a tad too high over the Bees’ crossbar. Faced with a flagging opponent, the Dreamers would not be denied any more attempts. The next 20 odd minutes saw four more goals for the home side. Diego Higino’s cross in the 63rd minute was turned into the back of his own net by Taiwanese defender Chen Ting Yang. Martinez, Gondra and Higino then all bagged themselves one in quick succession to complete a miserable rout of the boys in black-and-yellow.

There remains just one more day of league fixtures between the teams on May 19th: Southern will take on Yuen Long at home at Aberdeen Sports Ground, Pegasus entertain R&F at Mong Kok Stadium, old rivals Eastern and Kitchee face off at Hong Kong Stadium, Tai Po host Dreams at Tai Po Sports Ground, and Lee Man welcome Hoi King to Tseung Kwan O.

Before that, Dreams will take on Kitchee at Mong Kok on May 10th for the semifinals of the FA Cup, while Yuen Long and Southern will do the same on May 12th. Kitchee and Tai Po will finish their last round of AFC group fixtures against Hang Yuen and April 25 respectively in Taiwan and North Korea.

Match Results

R&F 1:2 Tai Po (May 4th, Yanzigang Stadium, Guangzhou; Attendance: 939)

Southern 3:1 Pegasus (May 4th, Aberdeen Sports Ground; Attendance: 432)

Hoi King 1:1 Kitchee (May 4th, Sham Shui Po Sports Ground; Attendance: 579)

Yuen Long 3:4 Eastern (May 5th, Yuen Long Stadium; Attendance: 732)

Dreams 6:0 Lee Man (May 5th, Tsing Yi Sports Ground; Attendance: 364)

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