AFC Champions League 2018 Preliminary Stage qualifier
Michel Lugo’25 Manuel Bleda ’63
Thanh Hoa 4
Pape Omar Faye ’31 Hoang Dinh Tung ’58, ’60 + ’90+5
Eastern’s disappointing season went from bad to worse as they fell 2-4 to FLC Thanh Hoa of Vietnam in their AFC Champions League 2018 Preliminary Stage qualifier held at Mong Kok stadium.
This defeat compounds a torrid period which sees Eastern smarting from a 8-1 thrashing by arch-rivals Kitchee in the league. This domestic capitulation saw the removal of Szeto Man-Chun as head coach with Hong Kong football legend Lee Kin Wo shifting from assistant coach into the hot seat for the qualifier game.
With so much at stake, the beginning of the game saw edgy play by both sides with the game having little to no flow or fluidity and there were many misplaced passes. A sense of nervousness seemed to permeate both sets of players. Eastern’s McKee had a slight chance in the 12th minute when his right wing cross was held well by Tran Buu Ngoc in the Tranh Hoa goal. Eastern raised the stakes of the game by taking the lead in the 25th minute through a downward header from Michael Lugo though the lead did not last long as Omar Faye smashed home a penalty for the visitors after a handball by Eastern’s Igawa Yusuke. Defensive carelessness which had cost Eastern so dear against Kitchee would soon prove their short-coming again in the second half.
The second half was dominated by Hoang Dinh Tung who scored a sensational hat-trick to seal Tranh Hoa’s progression. Slack defending by Eastern allowed Hoang to score in quick succession in the 59th and 60th minutes and from being 1-0 ahead, Eastern were now 3-1 down and having to chase the game.
Eastern were given a lifeline in the 63rd minute when a foul inside the box gave Eastern a penalty which was slotted away by Manuel Bleda after some gamesmanship from the Vietnamese side in order to delay the penalty. It was now a one goal game and Eastern pressed forward and in the 78th minute, the Tranh Hoa keeper was lucky not to be sent off for handball outside of the box and from the subsequent free-kick, Eastern hit the post.
With the minutes counting down, Eastern thought they had an equalizer in the 89th minute but the goal was ruled out for offside. With time running out, Eastern threw everyone forward which left many holes and gaps to be exploited; Hoang again took advantage and scored his third and his side’s fourth to ensure the visitors ran out 4-2 winners. The Vietnamese side will now take on Suwon Samsung Bluewings for a place in the group featuring Shanghai Shenhua.
For Eastern, these are difficult times and after the glory days of the nineties, the team hit a downward spiral which took the best part of two decades to recover from. It would be a shame if Eastern descended back down to mediocrity so quickly after establishing themselves in the top flight.
It will be a test of character if they can react to this severe disappointment and try and win a few domestic trophies. The huge continental nights against the likes of Guangzhou Evergrande just last year now seem like a distant memory.
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