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Kitchee Stun Kashiwa Reysol 1-0 for historical win in Asian Champions League

Photo by Ken Wu

Persistence has finally paid off for Kitchee with a historical 1-0 win over Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol in the Asian Champions league. The hero of the night at Hong Kong Stadium was youngster, Cheng Chin Lung, who deep into injury time, scored a beautiful curling shot from the edge of the box to send the home crowd into raptures. The win and even goal was much needed as, until this game, Kitchee had yet to score a goal or even gain a point in group E.

Kitchee celebrate their injury team winner. Photo: Ryan Kam

For all the talk about the experience and impact that Diego Forlan could make, it was a 20 year old youngster with limited playing time, who ended up being the match winner. Kitchee persisted through the game and could have also settled for a draw but they kept a good tempo and kept challenging for everything and were eventually rewarded. Kitchee did well away in Japan last week and were unlucky to lose and manager Alex Chu’s 4-4-2 line up reflected a little more attacking intent then his usual safe and defensive tactics.

The straight sending off of Kashiwa Reysol’s Masashi Kamekawa after 15 minutes, for fouling Kitchee’s Akande who was through on goal, did alter the course and flow of the game in Kitchee’s favour. Though, even when down to ten men and after minor adjustments, Kashiwa Reysol, actually kept on attacking as they also needed a win and the J-League side did have several chances. Kashiwas star striker, Cristiano, was kept on the bench until the 65th minute and when he came on, Kashiwa upped their tempo and some will ask why he was not brought on earlier or if the Japanese side were being too complacent in their approach.

Despite their numerical advantage for most of the game, Kitchee still seemed to be quite cautious and did not really take advantage as much as they could have. Would Kitchee have won against eleven players? It is hard to say but fans will stress that a win is a win.

Francis Chung, former independent member of the Project Phoenix Steering Committee (Project Phoenix is the blueprint to help radically transform Hong Kong football), shared his thoughts on Kitchee’s win over J-league opposition yet why a gap in standards still persists between Hong Kong and Japanese football.

“Cynics will point to Kasihiwa fielding a weakened team or the 75 minutes played with only ten men, but there is no mistaking, last night’s win was an extraordinary result for Kitchee and for Hong Kong football; but that’s where the irony lies. The gulf in standard between the Hong Kong Premier League and the J-League means we celebrate one off wins in a league competition as though they’re cup finals rather than seeing the result for what it is, three points for winning a group game.  While there are numerous reasons why there’s a gulf, there is one certainty, the gulf is never going to be bridged when leading J-League teams play over forty-five high intensity matches in a season while most Hong Kong teams will only play around half that number; and without the same intensity.”

Hong Kong Football fan and writer, JRP Borthwick stressed that Kashiwa Reysol backed off right at the end of the game, though this was probably due to tiredness, as they had played with ten men for most of the game.

Reysol fans are devastated at the final whistle. Photo: Ryan Kam

“Kashiwa sat off and gave Kitchee space right at the end and as a result they were punished with a very well-taken finish.”

S. Farnan, a first time visitor to HK stadium, commented that Kitchee deserved their win.

“Amazing scenes here and what a great goal and Kitchee were the better team the whole night.”

Takashi Nakae, a fervent J-League fan, shared his views on the game and felt that Kashiwa Reysol were still aggressive in attack despite being a man down, but could not hit the target.

“After the red card, Kashiwa changed their players but were still aggressive in terms of attack but unfortunately did not have the ability to score.”

The win leaves Kitchee still bottom of group E though a win is a vital confidence booster for the Hong Kong side. The sending off did favour Kitchee though their fighting spirit and grit was on show for all to see.

For their previous fixture against Kashiwa Reysol in Japan, Kitchee played well and were unlucky to lose and this gave Kitchee the chance to analyse their opponents and plan for the game at Hong Kong stadium. Jeff Hardbattle, football writer and J-league expert, gave his views on the game in Japan and whether or not Kitchee did well away because they played better overall or if it was because Kashiwa had benched some of their first teamers.

“I think there was a little bit of both. Kashiwa benched a number of their regular starting line-up with perhaps a certain amount of underestimating their opponents, whilst Kitchee won’t have failed to notice this and had some momentum going into the match following their big 4:1 away league victory over Tai Po. Alex Chu undoubtedly did the best that he could with the side at his disposal, but in the end Kashiwa’s quality proved just enough despite some very nervy moments, including an effort from Kitchee’s Fernando Pedreira that had to be cleared off the line. Despite Kashiwa coach Takahiro Shimotaira wanting to give some of his bigger names a rest, he was forced to call upon them later in the game including star striker Cristiano and the goal scorer himself Junya Ito.”

A Look Ahead To Kitchee’s Remaining Games in the Asian Champions League

For the last two match days in group E, Kitchee have to go away to play Jeonbuk Hyundai in South Korea. Jeonbuk won comfortably in Hong Kong in their previous encounter so the South Korean side are favourites to win this game.

Given how Jeonbuk hit 6 goals away in Hong Kong, Matthew Binns, K-League and South Korean football expert from K League United, looked forward to Kitchee’s away fixture in South Korea and discussed if the South Korean side could, in theory, score another large win at the expense of Kitchee.

“A lot will depend on which players are fielded. which will probably depend on what manager Choi Kang-Hee thinks is necessary for a game lacking in importance. With it being the final game in the group, and considering the ease of which they defeated the Hong Kong outfit last time, I would imagine it to be quite a rotated squad. That said, when Jeonbuk traveled to Hong Kong, they also sent out a team lacking in match fitness and missing some key names so theoretically a similar setup on home soil could once again reap equal rewards, especially if there are motivated players in the eleven who are itching for a starting berth in more important games. I would still expect Jeonbuk to win, but given it might be an unfamiliar lineup in an ultimately meaningless match, an admirable performance from Kitchee should keep the scoreline respectable.”

Kitchee’s final home game on April 4th, will be against the Chinese Super league side, Tianjian Quanjian. Given that Tianjian Quanjian have been so unpredictable recently, Hong Kong football fans will be hoping that the narrow confines of Mong Kok stadium will give Kitchee the chance to at least gain a point. Tianjian Quanjian’s recent inconsistent form (both a heavy defeat to Jeonbuk away yet a 4-2 win at home) has been noted by Johnson Zhang, Chinese football expert.

Kashiwa had many chances but failed to convert. Photo: Ken Wu

“As you can see, last week in the away game, Tianjian Quanjian were simply outclassed by Jeonbuk (6-3) and recently suffered a shock loss to Beijing Renhe in Chinese super league round two.”

The Gap Between Hong Kong Football and the Rest of the Major Asian Leagues

Despite Kitchee’s shock 1-0 win, the gap between the Hong Kong league and the respective leagues of those teams in the group (J-League, K-League, Chinese Super League) has been amplified by these games and it does seem that Hong Kong football simply cannot keep apace and several football commentators gave their views on the gap in standards and why it persists.

Judan Ali, world renowned football coach, who had coaching terms at both top two Hong Kong Football clubs at Kitchee SC and Eastern, shared his views on why Hong Kong football has not improved over the years whilst their Asian counterparts continue to pull ahead.

“Japanese and Korean coaching methods have been adapted to meet the NEEDS of their senior and youth structures for almost two decades and cultural habits such as diets and behaviours have also been adopted to meet the demands of the “international player.” Combining these qualities, the player in Korea and Japan, has evolved into a different “ beast “ and this has been mainly down to two coaches that pioneered change. Guus Hiddink and Arsene Wenger pioneered these changes which have been a “blueprint“ for sports development both at professional and grass roots levels in South Korea and Japan.”

“Hong Kong football needs to be taken more seriously at government level and clubs are continuously using and aiming to achieve the standard that Kitchee SC have achieved whereas Kitchee SC are comfortable in being number one in Hong Kong and why should they change that if they are not being put under any pressure to change that? Should Kitchee decide they want to compete internationally then they would require to be more streamlined at academy level to produce talent from within and what I mean by this is to house and feed the players at every age group with a coaching infrastructure such as say ‘La Masia’ of Barcelona’s football academy. So it boils down to great coaching and support from parents and schools to all work together. Until then progression on an international scale will not happen.”

RTHK radio commentator, Atom Cheung, also shared his views and pointed out how teams, in places like Japan, had sports facilities vastly superior to those found in Hong Kong.

Kitchee fans celebrate the famous win. Photo: Ken Wu

“Hong Kong is well behind other leagues in terms of resources available with respect to training. When I travel abroad I’m always amazed by the training facilities of a country’s top flight clubs. When I was in Brazil two years ago I went to the clubhouse of Flamengo and they had at least six pitches in their vicinity. They had special pitches specifically for youth training that are separate from ones used by the first team. Back in 2013, the Hong Kong league had a partnership with Yokohama FC and I went to the Japanese club’s state-of-the-art training ground. Again, multiple pitches for different training purpose in a clubhouse that felt much like a resort. Local fans were also invited to watch some of their training. Each team in these leagues have their own training grounds. The same thing cannot be said about Hong Kong where the richer teams get to rent Mong Kok Stadium and the other teams are left to share public recreational fields in Diamond Hill, Shek Kip Mei, or Tsing Yi.”

Stephen Tucker, who is both academy and 1st team coach at HKFC, mentioned the economic advantage of Kitchee’s rivals in group E.

“Kitchee’s rivals in group E have probably 90% more income from gate receipts in their domestic leagues. This allows them to provide a more professional environment for the players. Other than that it’s about how we develop our local players here in Hong Kong. The three foreigner rule should be a good leveller but we need to produce better players first. If we had better local players then we would be able to compete.”

Kashiwa Reysol’s travelling away support in Hong Kong. Photo: Ryan Kam

Hong Kong football observer and fan, J. Ho, shared this thoughts on the matter and commented on both the J-league and K-leagues academy systems.

“You could point to the fact that Hong Kong’s performance at sports on a competitive level is underwhelming and that it’s a small population. You could also compare the academy schemes that they have in Korea and Japan, and that there’s big interest with sold out stadia week in, week out. The domestic leagues are also very strong in those countries as well.”

Tobias Zuser, Hong Kong football writer stressed that unless Hong Kong football improved then there was the chance that Hong Kong teams would only remain in the lower tier of Asian club soccer and never really rise above this level.

“I think we need to factor in the context. There is no way that we could disregard the structural differences when it comes to infrastructure, funding, and professionalism between Hong Kong and the major leagues in Asia. At the same time, it is a big challenge for a local team to approach this level without exposure to this quality. Unfortunately, both of the continental tournaments, ACL and AFC Cup, happen very isolated from each other, and the current system makes it extremely difficult to make the step from one to the other. I think the ACL is a learning process, and teams like Kitchee certainly profit from this experience in the long run. The Thai teams are definitely a good example. At the beginning they were thrashed every round and now they are serious contenders for the Round of 16. But again, it is certainly not ideal that smaller member associations like Hong Kong have to face so many barriers to get their foot inside. Maybe a first step into the right direction would be a fairer qualification mode. Otherwise Hong Kong will be damned to the AFC Cup for the decade to come and would miss out on improving their standard and encouraging investment into the game.”

Overall, a memorable night for Kitchee and a morale boosting and much needed win for Hong Kong football.

Christopher KL Lau was born in England and grew up in both England and Hong Kong, and has a background in media, education and non-profits. He also is a freelance writer / photographer and has written for a number of magazines, websites and newspapers around the world on many subjects ranging from the arts to travel. Chris is passionate about sports and its place in society and is keen to promote both Hong Kong and Chinese football to a wider audience.

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