After a brilliant start to the World Cup Qualifiers with 7 points out of 3 games, the expectations for Hong Kong were high when they faced Qatar on September 8th at Mong Kok Stadium. After 85 minutes, it looked like destined to be a clear-cut 3:0 victory for the guests, but with two goals in three minutes, Hong Kong showed excellent fight in the closing stages which helped to soften the blow over the eventual 2:3 loss. Match report by Tobias Zuser, photos by JRP Borthwick.
For the third time in a row Mong Kok Stadium was at full capacity, although many more people would have wished to watch the game after Hong Kong celebrated their historic draw in Shenzhen just a few days earlier. As a result, several groups organized small-scale public screenings events around the city. In Kennedy Town, for instance, people gathered at hilly Sands Street to support the home team from afar.
The starting line-up differed in 4 positions from the previous game against China. In place of of Lee Chi Ho, injured captain Chan Wai Ho, Godfred Karikari and Leung Chun Pong, coach Kim decided to start with Cheung Kin Fung and Kilama at the back as well as Chan Siu Ki and Lo Kwan Yee in attack. This led to a loosely formed 4-3-3 formation, which ended up as a 4-4-2. The strategy was supposedly a bit more offensive, suggesting that the Hong Kong squad would not just defend another draw.
The atmosphere on the stands was amazing and most people have already arrived one hour before kick off. Unfortunately, many local and foreign media were again solely interested in the reaction to the national anthem. While there was again some booing, it was certainly much weaker than against Bhutan and Maldives. Instead, some of the fan groups started cheering “We are Hong Kong!” towards the end of the song. While several media reports suggested that FIFA is currently investigating if a disciplinary offense has occurred, anything else than a small financial penalty would be unproportional, considering the relatively mild consequences of similar incidents across the globe, including China (2004 Asian Cup final between China and Japan in Beijing).
From the beginning, both teams handled the ball very carefully, and after a few shaky moments during the first minutes, Hong Kong’s excellent centre back duo, consisting of Jean-Jacques Kilama and Festus Baise, kept the Qatari strikers at bay. However, when it looked that the home team might pull off a similar miracle as in China, a referee decision turned out to be a game-changer: Goalkeeper Yapp Hung-fai held the ball a little bit too long in his hands, and Qatar was awarded an indirect free-kick. While they didn’t score right away, it was the following corner that found the head of Karim Boudiaf, despite being surrounded by three Hong Kong players. In an act of miscommunication, Bai He expected McKee or Chan Siu Ki to compete for the header, but both stayed on the ground… Except for a goal attempt by Kilama in the 30th minute, Qatar dominated the game and had several more chances to increase the score. The Hong Kong team appeared to be tired and almost paralyzed, with McKee finding no way through the solid Qatar defense. Lo Kwan Yee had even bigger difficulties to find into the game, forcing coach Kim to react earlier than usual and bring in Beijing BG striker Karikari instead.
Although Xu Deshuai came in for Chan Siu Ki for the second half, Hong Kong still couldn’t create fast and dangerous counter-attacks, while leaving the Qatari enough room to dominate the midfield. Compared to the game against China, it seemed that the hosts were not as energetic, motivated and consequent enough to fight for every ball. After Cheung Kin-fung had one of the rare chances for an equalizer, Qatar stroke stroke back immediately and Abdelkarim Hassan scored the second goal of the evening.
Only after Kitchee winger Christian Kwesi Annan replaced exhausted Jaimes McKee, Hong Kong seemed to find back into the game, increasing the speed of their attacks. Unfortunately, Xu Deshuai had a rather disappointing performance on the right side, leaving most of the work to the other two forwards. When Qatar scored the third goal in the 85th minute, the defeat seemed to be unavoidable. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong fans were still totally committed to the game and cheered for their team. And that might have actually made the difference. Just two minutes later, Festus Baise headed the ball towards the goal, where it found Bai He, who just had to deliver it into the back of the net. Pumped with new adrenaline, Hong Kong kept pushing to the front and the Qatar team started getting a bit nervous. After another corner kick by Cheung Kin-fung, Karikari got the ball and scored with a sensational strike on the turn. Suddenly, everything seemed to be possible again during stoppage time, but in the end it was too little, too late: Hong Kong lost 2:3, but they also scored their first goals ever against Qatar.
BACK TO REALITY: HARD WORK AHEAD
All in all, the result of the evening was probably one of the best case scenarios. Another lucky draw (or even win) would have further distorted the actual reality of local football. Let’s be frank, you can only talk convincingly about improvement, if people actually recognize what’s going on. For sure, Hong Kong have played an excellent World Cup Qualifier campaign so far, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the drastic weaknesses: limited tactical flexibility, slow transition from defense to offense (with hardly any chance to get counter-attacks going), as well as the lack of exceptionally skilful centre forwards and play makers. On the other hand, Hong Kong’s close game against Qatar was the perfect result to keep this amazing and newly found enthusiasm for local football still alive for some while.
On a side note, there is some new manpower coming in the way of the Hong Kong team: Three foreign Kitchee players are about to receive their SAR passport and might be eligible to make their debut in one of the next few games. Paulinho (Brazil) and Alex Akande (Nigeria) are two forwards, while Helio is another centre back.
Photos courtesy of JRP Borthwick
1 Yapp Hung Fai (C) — 13 Cheung Kin Fung, 5 Jean-Jacques Kilama, 3 Festus Baise (69′: Yellow Card), 14 Jack Sealy — 4 Bai He, 6 Huang Yang (39′: Yellow Card), 10 Lam Ka Wai — 7 Chan Siu Ki (14′: Yellow Card; 46′: 8 Xu Deshuai), 12 Lo Kwan Yee (39′: 11 Godfred Karikari), 22 Jaimes McKee (61′: 9 Christian Kwesi Annan)
1 Amine Lecomte, 2 Mohammed Musa, 3 Abdelkarim Hassan, 6 Mohammed Kasola, 8 Ali Assadalla (73′: 14 Akram Afif), 10 Hassan Al Haidos (C) (92′: 7 Khalid Muftah), 13 Mohammed Muntari, 16 Boualem Khoukhi (82′: 11 Hussein Yasser), 19 Ahmed Yasser Mohammedi (80′: Yellow Card), 20 Karim Boudiaf, 23 Mohamed El-Sayed
GOALS: Bai He (87′), Godfred Karikari (89′); Karim Boudiaf (22′), Abdelkarim Hassan (62′), Mohammed Musa (84′)
ATTENDANCE: 6,396 (sold out)
OFFSIDE.HK’S MAN OF THE MATCH: Cheung Kin-Fung
Despite being a left-back, Cheung was involved in all dangerous situations in front of the Qatari goal. Aside from a few shot attempts, he delivered both the cross and the corner-kick that led to the first and second goal for Hong Kong.
HOW TO QUALIFY
Hong Kong are currently competing in the 2nd Round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019 AFC Asian Cup joint qualification. In total there are 40 participating AFC members, divided into 8 groups of each 5 teams. Only the winner of each group as well as the four best ranked runner-ups will advance to the 3rd Round of the World Cup qualification while directly qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup. The remaining 4 runner-ups, the 8 third-placed teams as well as the 4 best fourth-placed teams will instead directly qualify for the 3rd Round of the Asian Cup qualifiers. The other teams (the 4 weaker fourth-placed teams as well as the last in each group) will fight in a play off for the remaining 8 spots in the 3rd round.
The 3rd Round of the Asian Cup qualifiers will consist of 24 participants, divided into 6 group with each 4 teams. They will compete for 11 or 12 Asian Cup spots (depending on the performance of the United Arab Emirates in the qualifiers, as they will host the next Asian Cup).
13 Oct 2015 – Bhutan vs Hong Kong
12 Nov 2015 – Maldives vs Hong Kong
17 Nov 2015 – Hong Kong vs China (8 pm, Hong Kong Stadium)
24 Mar 2016 – Qatar vs Hong Kong