As the first round of this years Asian Champions League group stage draws to a close on Wednesday evening, the reigning champions of Hong Kong, Eastern Sports Club, enters the tournament for the very first time. Except their first opponents who are, arguably, the best team in Asia, two-time AFC Champions League-winners (2013 and 2015) boasting six straight Chinese league wins, Guangzhou Evergrande, the debutants are faced with Suwon Bluewings (South Korea) and Kawasaki Frontale (Japan). With a draw like that, every point must be seen as a great success for the club which, at first, declared it would not be taking part in the tournament, as it simply couldn’t afford it. After further consideration however, and much to the annoyance of Kitchinee, last season’s runners up in Hong Kong, it was decided that participation was financially viable.
So what makes a match that couldn’t possibly end in anyhing other than a landslide victory for the giants playing at home, interesting to outsiders?
The answer is: quite a lot.
First of all, even though the clubs belong to different FA’s and their home-towns to different systems yet, technically, the same country (let’s leave the political connotations at that for now), tomorrow’s game is all but a local affair. The two cities are roughly 70 miles apart and the only team with a shorter journey to play Evergrande in the Ping An Super League this season is the other Guangzhou side, R&F. The next team on that list being Guizhou HFZC, at 460-mile as the crow flies.
Moving on form the derby-aspect, the manager matchup is a major attraction as world cup-winner Luiz Felipe Scolari is pinned against one of the most exciting young prospects in the world, Chan Yuen-ting. When the 28-year old led Eastern to their first league title in over two decades, she also became the first female manager ever in men’s football to win a professional top-flight title, all this in the former video-analysists first season in charge.
In addition, the match has been preceded by a, to say the least, remarkable decision by Eastern to recall all tickets purchased by their own fans and make it abundantly clear that no travelling fans will be allowed in the away section of the stadium. Those who have bought tickets will be financially compensated but the explanation given, “Internal problems”, raises more questions than it answers. However the club strongly denies rumours of government pressure relating to the political manifestations in Hong Kong three years ago and the AFC have stated no rules have been broken as Evergrande has provided the mandatory tickets but the guests have chosen not to make us of them.
If all this isn’t enough, a good old fashioned David-vs-Goliath situation may still tickle the fancy of more than a few football fans out there.
And what can be expect of the actual events on the pitch? There’s, as previously stated, very little that speak in favour of a great Eastern upset at Tianhe Stadium against an Evergrande, who apparently can afford to leave a name like Jackson Martinez out of their allowed foreign player-quota. The same quota that forces Eastern to travel to mainland China without four key players (Roberto Affonso, who attained his Hong Kong-passport less than a year ago and is still considered a foreign player, Giovane da Silva, Saric and Lugo). Scolari has been given the task of winning all competitions that Evergrande enters this season and that Chan, whose club mostly talks about the Champions League-campaign in terms of gaining valuable experience, would manage to outfox the seasoned Brazilian with severe limitations within her own squad seems unlikely, to say the least. It will, most likely, be an Eastern side that starts out in even lower than their usually defensive formation and fight for all they’re worth to earn a draw.
That being said, there’s 11 players on each side, anything can happen in football, etc. etc.