Three naturalized Spaniards made their debut for Hong Kong this month. (PHOTO COURTESY OF HKFA.COM)
In any other circumstances, both Malaysia and Hong Kong could be doing very well in their 2019 Asian Cup qualifying campaigns. The only issue that both teams have is that they were drawn into one of the toughest qualifying groups imaginable, together with resurgent Lebanon and regional powerhouses the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). On Oct 10 Hong Kong and Malaysia will face each other at Hong Kong Stadium and both know that a loss would effectively end any hopes of progressing.
A much-improved Lebanon are running away in the group with seven points after two wins and one draw. Hong Kong are currently on just two points, tied with DPRK, but they have already played one more game than their opponents. That means, Malaysia and Hong Kong have to take all three points this week if they want to stand any chance to make it to the finals in the United Arab Emirates in 2019. Hong Kong’s lack of clinical finishing, winning mentality and ruthlessness was exposed in their last away game in Malaysia where – despite having a two-men advantage and an injury time penalty – they still failed to win.
Malaysia coach Nelo Vingada and Hong Kong coach Kim Pan-gon are both under intense scrutiny from their local media and the pressure will be immense to secure the vital points. Hong Kong boosted their confidence with a much-needed 4-0 win over Laos in a friendly on 5 October, though it could prove to be a false dawn, as Hong Kong have struggled to secure wins in their more competitive games.
Striker Jordi Tarres scored in his first game for Hong Kong. (PHOTO COURTESY OF HKFA.COM)
As a shake-up of the current squad, Kim used three recently naturalised players against Laos in the form of long-term Hong Kong residents Jordi Tarres, Daniel Cancela and Fernando Recio. Their presence, if selected, may give Hong Kong the presence that they need, as over the course of the last few years, their style of play has become increasingly less fluid and predictable. Some will argue that younger members should be given a chance, as players like Tarres are already over 35, though if the new players help to secure a win, then these voices of criticism will probably soon subside.
There was also an experiment with Wu Chun-ming and James Ha, who were both granted their debuts. Their respective teams, Pegasus and Southern, have made respectable starts to the season, so their call up to the senior squad is a sign of some progress. At the same time, Tai Po regulars Wong Wai and Tan Chun-lok prove that there are some local talents that might soon take a leading role in Hong Kong’s representative team.
In any case, a victory for Hong Kong should be still on the cards. Malaysia have had a poor run of form and have not won a game since September 2016, whilst their often cancelled away game against North Korea has caused some confusion in terms of preparation, though some have said it has also given the Malaysians more time to prepare.
Hong Kong made some attacking promise in their draw with Malaysia recently, with Jaimes McKee being effective on the wings, but Malaysia will be more wise to the threat this time.