Hong Kong correspondent Christopher KL Lau brings his regular round-up of all the very latest news, developments and other footballing points of interest from the SAR.
If there was a script for this remarkable game then it was clear that neither Hong Kong giants South China or AFC cup 2015 winners and Malaysian champions, Johor Darul Ta’zim bothered to read it. Fans were treated to a highly dramatic match marred by below par refereeing, cynical tactics by JDT and a last gasp goal to level the game by South China. From the outset, it has all the elements of a classic and proved to be one.
This AFC Cup 2016 quarter final first leg at Mong Kok stadium had the potential to be a one sided affair with JDT firm favorites to continue their remarkable run of simply destroying all before them with South China simply being another formality. With JDT’s strikers Pereyra Diaz and Juan Lucero scoring goals at will and the large away support in the form of JDT’s ‘Boys of Straits’, JDT were clear favourites to win; all observers expected them to win comfortably except for the South China players and their manager Ricardo Rambo.
The match was astonishingly entertaining and highly dramatic marred by what can only be described as cynical tactics from JDT to waste time and hold onto what looked to be a winning goal after taking an early lead. JDT looked like champions early on but the game slowly turned.
South China entered the game, not only as the less favored team to win; more as lambs to the slaughter as JDT had pretty much swept aside all before them both in the Malaysian Super League and the AFC Cup 2016 group stages and round of sixteen. South China endured a disappointing campaign last season though their prolonged AFC Cup run has proved to be the glimmer of hope for some form of trophy. Under the guidance of South China manager Ricardo Rambo, the ‘Caroliners’ have improved and grown in greater resilience and mental toughness and it showed in this game.
JDT started off the front foot with their midfield maestro, Safiq Rahim, running the show with his precise passing and effective distribution. JDT had the majority of the possession early on and it paid off in the 22nd minute when a poor clearance from the South China defence fell to JDT’s hot shot Pereyra Diaz who hit a low and relatively weak shot which really should have been saved by South China keeper Leung Hing Kit. It slowly crept in and JDT were ahead deservedly but not how they expected. This in turn proved to be the catalyst for South China to begin to fight back and slowly the game swayed again as South China seemingly awoke from their slumber.
Awal of South China proved to be a constant threat as his silky and fleet footed runs made the JDT defence uneasy and on the 29th minute he won a free kick on the edge of the JDT penalty area and the subsequent free kick ended up with a half volley attempt fly over the JDT bar. South China were showing greater character and the game was far from won for JDT.
The second half started where South China left off with the home side holding the majority of the possession and playing like champions. The South China midfield were quick to cut off the supply lines from the JDT midfield to their strikers and South China kept up the high tempo throughout to hustle JDT’s players off the ball. Awal proved to be JDT’s tormentor with another surging run into the box and then subsequent shot in the 65th minute and minutes later, South China’s defensive rock Bogan nearly slid in a half volley from a low corner.
The entire night saw cynical fouls and poor refereeing and this finally came to a head when the JDT goalkeeper, Izham Tarmizi, mis-kicked the ball and in the process of kicking injured himself. The game continued and the ball was hooked back into the box and South China’s Chan Siu Kei’s header was saved by the injured keeper who miraculously managed to get up again before collapsing back to the ground. Tensions boiled over with a scuffle breaking out which saw at least two South China players ending up on the ground and the JDT goalkeeper also on his back again for no apparent reason. It took a few minutes for the game to calm down and again yellow cards were shown but no reds were issued by a referee who seemed to let pretty much everything go. Quintessentially, JDT were seemingly playing for time and it simply boiled over in frustration into a free for all.
In a frenetic finish and with time running down, the ball fell to South China’s Nikola Komazec who was well marshaled all night by the JDT defence though he managed to shake his markers after a defensive mistake and he spun and shot on the 93rd minute. His shot was lashed home from about 15 yards and the stadium erupted as South China had pulled a goal back and it was certainly well deserved.
South China were inspired and Ricardo Rambo’s men deserve all the kudos and praise they have earned in this first leg for their resilience and willingness to work hard on and off the ball to disrupt JDT’s game plan. The second leg will be a whole new test for South China as they will face a capacity away crowd and if they manage to get a result away from home then it would be an incredible achievement.
South China have endured, struggled and inspired to get this far in the AFC Cup 2016 and surely on the back of this performance, they deserve to progress further.
Photos by JRP Borthwick and Chris KL Lau