Eastern will be the first team from Hong Kong to participate in the group stages of Asia’s top continental tournament. While they have caused some furore at home over the last few years, their Asian track-record has been quite humble. Tobias Zuser has put together an in-depth portrait of the new kids on the block.
While there is certainly cause for calling the match between Eastern and Guangzhou Evergrande a proper derby, it might be prudent to first provide an in-depth introduction of the ACL newcomers, whom for many are clear underdogs in the competition. But when it comes to real footballing tradition, there is more to this club than first meets they eye.
Eastern were established in 1932 as Eastern Athletic Association and are one of the oldest Chinese football clubs in Asia. In fact, they can proudly call themselves the oldest club in this year’s Champions League, even outshining Saudi team Al-Ahli (1937).
Though their first title came in the 1955-56 season, they were particularly successful in the 1990’s where they won 3 back-to-back titles beginning in the 1992-93 campaign. English legends such as Bobby Moore (as manager), Alan Ball and Graham Paddon have been involved with the club, and they were a mainstay of the top division until they were relegated in 1997. Eastern eventually returned to the first division in 2013 where they have since gone from strength to strength, finishing as runners-up in the inaugural Premier League season. Over the years, the Blues clinched no less than five league titles, four FA Cup victories and ten Senior Shield trophies, which puts them in the top five of Hong Kong’s most successful football clubs.
Humble track-record in Asia
While Eastern are the first team from Hong Kong to qualify for the Asian Champions League, they missed several chances to achieve this milestone earlier. Between 1993 and 1996, Eastern entered the qualifiers for the Asian Club Championship, the predecessor of the ACL. But this turned out to be a somewhat traumatising experience for the Hong Kong champions, as every single year their participation was denied by Verdy Kawasaki (now Tokyo Verdy) from Japan. In 2009 Eastern participated in the group stage of the AFC Cup, where they beat Hanoi ABC (VIE) and Chonburi (THA). However, with seven points the Hong Kong side only finished third and failed to qualify for the finals.
With the goal now finally achieved, unfortunately, no Eastern fan will be able to attend the ACL debut against Guangzhou Evergrande. Just a few days before the game, the club announced that all 188 fans who had purchased away tickets were not allowed to attend the game. Instead, they would be compensated with HK$ 3,000, blaming it on a “personal mistake”. As of now, the management is still owing the Eastern fans a satisfying explanation of why they are barred from the away game in Guangzhou, making the decision appear highly dubious.
New financial backing
In recent years the club was known as Eastern Sports Club, but this changed last summer, when the club suddenly found itself in serious financial trouble. Long-term owner Lai Tung-kwong pulled the plug and for several weeks it was not sure if the Blues could escape from bankruptcy. However, Eastern found their saviour in real estate developer Nenking Group who also own the Chinese basketball team Guangzhou Long Lions (formerly Foshan Long Lions) and therefore invested simultaneously into Eastern’s football and basketball team. Since then Eastern have been branded as Eastern Long Lions in the Hong Kong Premier League. However, at least for this year the Blues will have to stick to their old name, which they had when they initially qualified for the ACL – Eastern Sports Club.
Brace yourself for what will be the top media story during Eastern’s entire ACL campaign. Last year, coach Chan Yuen-ting, aka “Beefball”, claimed a Guinness World Record by becoming the first female coach to win a national title with a men’s team. And in 2017 she will enter the history books again by becoming the first female coach (and maybe even the youngest) in the ACL. Although her success story shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that football has overcome the gender gap, her achievement has put Hong Kong football on the map, in a time when no one expected it. She not only received honours from the BBC, listing her as one of the world’s most influential women, but also received the AFC Women’s Coach of the Year award.
Before taking up her first head coach position in December 2015, Beefball earned her spurs as a football analyst for Sun Pegasus and Eastern. This approach still shines through in her coaching style. Chan Yuen-ting is primarily focused on tactics, continuing the work of her predecessor Yeung Ching-kwong, who became assistant coach at China League One side Meizhou Hakka. While being highly analytical, Chan is also known for not taking too many risks – and she has sometimes challenged the patience of fans by waiting for long periods before making subsitutions. The ACL campaign will not only be an amazing chance for Chan to prove herself once more in the male-dominated football world, but it will also be a serious challenge as she has to manage a substantially weaker squad.
Foreign Aid in ACL
Teams in the Hong Kong Premier League currently have to comply with a 5+1 rule, requiring each club to register a maximum of 6 foreign players, one of which has to be from an AFC member country. But in the league clubs are allowed to field up to four foreigners at the same time, regardless of their origin. For the group stages of the ACL, Chan Yuen-ting has nominated defensive midfielder Diego Eli (BRA), league top-scorer Manuel Bleda (ESP), as well as the two centre-backs Josh Mitchell (AUS) and Roberto Affonso Jr. (BRA).
The latter received his Hong Kong passport in March 2016 and has since then played several times for the national team. However, AFC rules require a naturalised player to hold the passport for at least one year before he is allowed to compete in the ACL or AFC Cup. That means Eastern will have to do without three of their foreign aids, namely Michel Lugo (BRA), Miroslav Saric (CRO), and Giovane da Silva (BRA). While Lugo and da Silva have been chasing their form of late, Saric has had a terrific season, often in the role of a centre midfielder, and will undoubtedly be a big miss.
Possible Starting XI
This season Eastern have usually stuck with a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the only glaring weakness being confined to the full back positions. In contrast to teams such as Kitchee, Tai Po, and Southern, Chan Yuen-ting has not switched to the trend of having just three players at the back.
Yapp Hung-fai (#1) is not only the captain but also one of the key players in the current Eastern squad. Just 25 years of age, he has already won an Olympic Gold medal in the 2009 East Asian Games. While his form might have declined a bit since the memorable World Cup qualifiers, his experience and skill to read the game are invaluable. He is known for being among the loudest players on the pitch and usually gets involved in every heated debate. Many still might remember the altercation with Chinese national team player and Guangzhou Evergrande captain Zheng Zhi, who supposedly spat in Yapp’s face.
Roberto Affonso Jr. (#15) arrived in Hong Kong in 2007 and after almost seven years with Sun Hei he joined Eastern two years ago. Since then he has become one of the league’s most reliable centre-backs and also the preferred choice in the national team, which he represented for the first time in 2016. This season Roberto has teamed up with Australian Josh Mitchell (#2) who has brought a lot of experience to the club. With spells in the A-League and the CSL, he probably knows best what to expect from star-studded teams such as Guangzhou Evergrande.
The left-back position this year was mainly occupied by Tsang Kam-to (#21), who had serious trouble in keeping a strong Kitchee attack in check during the Senior Shield final in January this year. However, during the winter break Wong Tsz-ho (#30) returned from his loan at Rangers where he used to start regularly, and since then he has been the preferred option on the left. Consequently, Tsang was mainly used as right back, replacing Cheng King-ho who has been out of form lately.
Eastern are one of the few teams in the Hong Kong Premier League that have adopted a “double six”. Diego Eli (#3) arrived in Hong Kong five years ago and has been with Eastern since 2013. This season he scored two goals and assisted another two. However, he is also known for his emotional outbreaks and referees in the ACL might be less tolerant towards his continuous complaining. Bai He (#4) is one of Eastern’s three naturalised players from Mainland China and boasts a lot of experience. In 2015 he led Shijiazhuang Yongchang to the Chinese Super League, where he stayed with the club for another season, before returning to Hong Kong. His gentleman-like style of play makes him an extremely valuable asset, and he also regularly takes responsibility for set-pieces.
The central midfield is where it gets a little bit tricky. In the league, this position has been mainly filled up by Miroslav Saric, who will not be part of the ACL team. In recent weeks, this position has been taken over by Ju Yingzhi (#24), who has looked solid, but not entirely confident, especially when it comes to precision and creativity. Xu Deshuai and Leung Chun-pong might be another option, but they have just returned from injuries and might lack the necessary match practice.
One of the biggest surprises this season has been the comeback of Lee Hong-lim (#17), which even earned the 33-year-old a call into the national team. Having scored seven goals this season, he is currently the best Hong Kong-born scorer in the league and his age has not been hindering him from outplaying his much younger opponents. On the right side it will most likely be Jaimes McKee (#23). While not being the most skillful striker, his strengths are speed and persistence – with many still remembering when he hit the bar against China. His job will be to initiate counter-attacks and on a good day he could definitely cause an upset.
Last but not least, Eastern fans will be pinning their hopes on Spaniard Manuel Bleda (#9), who previously played in the Belarusian Premier League as well as for Tajik side Istiklol, who some might recognize from the AFC Cup. Just 26 years of age Bleda has produced many outstanding performances this season. and he currently is top scorer in the league. He is particularly strong when it comes to set pieces and he might also fancy his chances with some long-range shots.
Xu Deshuai (#7) has been injured for most of the season and although he has never really found back his outstanding form when he was playing for Kitchee in 2014/15, he is without doubt still one of Hong Kong’s best executers of free-kicks. In the ACL he could either replace Jaimes McKee as right winger or Ju Yingzhi in the central midfield, where he usually enjoys a bit more freedom than Ju. Another player who has just recovered is Leung Chun-pong (#29) who was a definite starter at the beginning of the season. The strength of Leung is his versatility that makes him capable of playing either in central or defensive midfield, making him a solid substitute for Ju Yingzhi, Bai Hei or Diego Eli.
27-year-old Tsang Chi-hau (#12) is usually Chan’s first choice whenever one of the starting centre-backs is missing and occasionally he might also slot into a defensive midfielder role. In the ACL he will be an unlikely starter, but he will probably get his chance during the campaign.
Not yet known is how much Chan Yuen-ting will count on Ng Wai-chiu (#35), who only returned to Hong Kong this winter after falling out of favour at Cannavaro’s Tianjin Quanjian. In the past, Ng has made more headlines due to his negative comments about local football than his qualities at a player, and so far he has only played in one competitive game as a centre-back. However, his experience in China could add some value.
Five more players will probably fight for the three remaining places on the bench. One of them is right-back Cheng King-ho (#14), who has had difficulties in finding his old form when he captained Yuen Long. One interesting attacking option for Eastern might be Cheng Siu-wai (#19). The 35-year-old is a football veteran in Hong Kong and although he has not had much match practice this year, he scored and assisted another goal in his first appearance this season. He might also be the only other forward option that would be left on the bench. Aside from 24-year-old midfielder Li Ka-chun (#18), that leaves us with defenders Tse Man-wing (#13), Wong Chin-hung (#6), and Wong Chi-chung (#28) – all of them in their mid thirties – who might only join the team if someone has to drop out due to bookings or injuries.
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