For Kitchee and South China, February means the start of the AFC Cup proper, with the tournament’s group stage beginning on 23rd February.
This is Asia’s junior continental competition, the little brother of the AFC Champions’ League. The AFC Cup is intended for clubs from the lower-ranked half of Asia’s footballing nations, and Hong Kong champions Kitchee are here after losing a playoff for the AFC Champions’ League. South China, meanwhile, qualify as winners of the 2015 season playoffs.
From here on in, the AFC Cup follows a fairly simple format, with two teams qualifying for the knockout stages from each of eight round-robin groups. All the teams in this year’s draw have been dealt a favour by the AFC’s decision to exclude – on the grounds of “political interference” – teams from Indonesia and Kuwait, both major powers in this context.
Let’s take a look at the profile and prospects of Hong Kong’s representatives and the teams they’ll face in the groups.
Group F: Kitchee (HK), Balestier Khalsa (Singapore), New Radiant (Maldives), Kaya (Philippines)
A cynic might say that Balestier Khalsa owe their qualification more to luck than to their own efforts. They finished a mere fourth in last season’s S.League, but qualified because two teams ahead of them were ineligible on technical grounds. Balestier is quite an institution, and can trace its origins to the 19th century, with deep links to Singapore’s Sikh community. However, the club has never won the S.League. Not spectacularly free-scoring, and with no established internationals in the squad, 2016’s Balestier will hope for goals from Croatian striker Robert Pericic. He’s part of a substantial Balkan contingent at the club in recent seasons.
Unlike Balestier, New Radiant of the Maldives are dominant in their domestic league, having taken a fourth successive title in 2015. Their challenge will be to transcend the relatively unchallenging background of Maldivian club football and make an impact at a more competitive level. They do have plenty of international experience in the squad, and back in 2005 a previous New Radiant team went all the way to the semi-finals. So it can be done. Recent form in AFC tournaments, however, has been poor.
Philippine cup winners Kaya are debutants in AFC competition. In the short history of their country’s United Football League, Kaya have already found their niche as perpetual bridesmaid, finishing in the top four several times but never in top spot. Their cosmopolitan and fairly youthful squad includes recruits from England, Africa, the US and Japan. Quality looks in short supply however, so surprise may be their most effective weapon. Their goal in Asia will be to improve on last year’s showing by Philippine representatives Global FC, which saw them hammered 6-1 away by South China.
Which leaves Kitchee. Their domestic title defence so far has been less than convincing, marred by a tendency to draw eminently winnable games. Besides, the departure in January of prolific and popular striker Juan Belencoso has greatly displeased many of the fans. But Kitchee are still a threat; Belencoso in fact scored only one of the side’s creditable 19 league goals so far this campaign. Kitchee spread the goals around, with Alex Akande and Jordi Tarres each on three for this term. Winger Fernando has the same tally, but the Brazilian may well not feature in Asia, due to the limits on foreign players. At least Rufino Segovia, charged with replacing Belencoso, has made a good start by scoring two goals in a morale-boosting win over South China.
Group G: South China (HK), Mohun Bagan (India), Yangon United (Myanmar), Maziya (Maldives)
One storied club will take on another when South China meet Mohun Bagan. The I-League champions are one of Asia’s grand old footballing institutions, founded in 1889. That’s right, an Indian football club older than Liverpool, Juventus or Real Madrid. Success at home has been achieved by balancing a mean defence, featuring Indian internationals Raju Gaikwad and Pritam Kotal, with potent forwards like Cornell Glen, Katsumi Yusa, and Haitian international Sony Norde. It’s a combination that looks set to retain its grip on the I-League, and on paper at least it looks potentially effective on the Asian stage.
Yangon United are at the other end of the scale when it comes to venerability; like the league competition they play in, they were only founded in 2009. They have however managed to cement dominance at home, winning the Myanmar championship in four of the last five seasons. This has made them regular AFC Cup competitors which, combined with the large number of established Myanmar internationals in the squad, may give them more than enough experience to outperform expectations. They have a decent record against Hong Kong opposition, including beating Sun Hei home and away in the group stages in 2013.
Maziya are another team from the Maldives. Mostly unknown to fans internationally, they are in fact regular, though only fitfully competitive, participants in the AFC Cup group stage, The current iteration finished a long way off the pace in the Maldivian Premier League, and qualified for Asia by winning a cup; despite the promise offered by a couple of emerging internationals, they do not look like strong contenders in this company.
South China are running strongly in the Premier League; they’re the division’s top scorers on 20, and already have as many wins to their name as they managed all of last season. The biggest news has been the mid-season capture of attacker Ryan Griffiths, a former Chinese Super League champion and Australian international. With two goals to his name already, Griffiths has been a real injection of quality into an already solid, if sometimes ageing, roster. Cameroonian winger Mahama Awal has been the most potent goal threat, hitting six so far this campaign.
What are Hong Kong’s chances?
So, enough about the form – time to make some calls on the prospects for Kitchee and South China in their groups.
Kitchee have much the kinder draw of the two, and the side from Mong Kok should have the quality required to get out of their group. Balestier are something of an unknown quantity, while New Radiant may have the strength and experience to prosper, but neither will frighten Kitchee. If the latter perform professionally, their Singapore and Maldives rivals should be fighting over second place. That means we’re probably discounting debutants Kaya. Notwithstanding some apparent needling between the fan bases on social media, the Philippine side’s trip to Hong Kong on 23rd February should be a home win.
South China’s prospects seem more baleful. They will certainly believe they can see off Maziya, the weaker of the two Maldivian entrants. But if Mohun Bagan hit form– as they are currently doing domestically – then South China will find themselves engaged in a proper tussle. They may well end up contesting second place with Yangon United; the Myanmar operation’s experience and record at this level mean they are not to be taken lightly.
Kitchee will have their first home game on Tuesday, 23rd February 2016 against Kaya at Mong Kok Stadium.