In a game that was as exciting for the neutral as it was for the supporters of these two sides, it was Kitchee who reigned supreme over visitors Hanoi FC, after 120 minutes of high-octane drama at Hong Kong Stadium.
In an opening that was somewhat at odds with the buzz that would ensue, the first minutes were a quiet affair, with neither side managing to gain a firm foothold in the game save for a half-chance afforded to Sandro, who capitalised on a defensive error before being denied by an excellent recovery by Spanish-born defender Alvaro Linares. This relative calm was broken 20 minutes in, when a powerful header by Kitchee defender Helio was brilliantly saved by visiting goalkeeper Tran Anh Duc, before the ball broke to Huang Yang whose long-range effort rattled off the crossbar. This was a sign of things to come for the remainder of the half, with Kitchee huffing and puffing without receiving any reward for their resolve. Soon after, a Lam Ka Wai cross was met by the head of Sandro who saw his effort tipped over the bar, before Sandro turned architect and played an excellent through ball to Lo Kwan Yee who shot straight at the keeper. Minutes later, Kitchee were to hit the woodwork for the second time in the half with Sandro again the perpetrator, launching a powerful free-kick from distance which rattled off of the crossbar and over, much to the chagrin of the home support. This was to be Kitchee’s last real chance of the half, and the two sides went in level pegging at the break, with Kitchee fans sure to have felt a sense of dread that their side may live to regret their inability to make their pressure count.
The second half began much in the same vein as the first, with the opening fifteen minutes providing little in the way of chances for either side. That was until the introduction of Alex Akande, with the man who has averaged almost one goal per game for the Hong Kong national team proving himself to be the menace that he so often is to the opposing defence. Within minutes, Akande was in the thick of things, intercepting a sloppy pass before charging at the Hanoi defence and firing a shot low and hard at goal. His effort was parried by Tran Anh Duc, who just about managed to gather the ball before the arrival of the equally menacing Sandro who was eager to pounce on the rebound. Then, at the other end, disaster struck for the home side. Completely against the run of play, Hanoi found themselves a goal ahead, and through somewhat fortuitous circumstances. Nguyen Quang Hai picked the ball up just inside the Kitchee half and seemed to stumble before playing the ball through to skipper Gonzalo Morronkle whose shot deflected off of Wang Zhenpeng and into the corner of the net. Much like South China’s 2016 clash with Malaysian side Johor Darul Ta’zim, Kitchee were forced to endure a spot of time-wasting by the visitors following the goal, with a number of players going down nursing minor injuries. Undeterred, the hosts kept pressing for an equaliser, and were eventually rewarded for their efforts. A corner from Fernando was floated deep into the box, and seemed as though it was going harmlessly out of play, but Akande somehow managed to hook the ball back into the box with an outstretched leg, the ball landing at the feet of Sandro who fired a shot towards goal which ricocheted off of two Hanoi defenders and into the net. Not pretty, but they all count. The home support willed Kitchee on for the remaining ten minutes, with the 3,778 strong crowd sounding more akin to 30,000 at times, but the game remained at 1-1 after 90 minutes.
And with that, extra-time ensued. In accordance with the pattern of this game, the first fifteen minutes of extra time were a tight affair, with neither side creating anything clear cut. The only moment of drama came courtesy of, you guessed it, Alex Akande, who went down injured just a couple of minutes into the extra time period. While receiving treatment, Akande was treated to a chorus of “Alex! Alex!” from the home crowd, who seemed to will their hero back to health, as he soldiered on to play a massive part in proceedings. With the second period of extra time barely underway, Kitchee gained the lead for the first time in the match, after Fernando’s deep corner was met by a powerful header from Akande, who injured himself once again in the process, but this time was unable to continue. A man down and tiring, it was always going to be a struggle for Kitchee to hold onto their lead, and before long, Hanoi had levelled matters once again. Morronkle doubled his tally for the night with an excellent header after once again linking up with Nguyen Quang Hai. With three minutes of additional time on the clock, Kitchee would have been forgiven for shutting up shop and waiting for penalties, but this confident side has never been one to rest on their laurels, and this game was to have one more twist. Fernando once again proved himself to be a master of set-pieces, and the Brazilian sent a tantalising free-kick towards the far post of the visitor’s penalty area, which was met by the onrushing Lam Ka Wai, who sent his header downwards into the corner of the keeper’s net in what was to be the last play of the game.
It was perhaps fitting that, considering the team selection dilemma afforded to Kitchee as a result of AFC’s rules regarding home-grown players, that it was Lam Ka Wai, Hong Kong born and bred, who proved to be the match winner. However, it was foreign flair courtesy of the likes of Fernando, Akande and Sandro that proved most decisive for Kitchee over the course of this game, who face a mountainous task to overcome the much-fancied Korean side Ulsan Hyundai away from home on February 7th.
KITCHEE: Wang Zhenpeng, Helio, Fernando, Lam Ka Wai, Sandro, Lo Kwan Yee (Harima Hirokane), Huang Yang, Tong Kin Man (Alex Akande), Krisztian Vadocz, Kim Dongjin (Sham Kwok Keung), Kim Bongjin.
HANOI: Tran Anh Duc, Nguyen Van Dung, Pham Van Thanh, Doan Van Hau (Dao Duy Khanh), Nguyen Quang Hai, Gonzalo Marronkle, Do Duy Manh (Nguyen Van Quyet), Pham Duc Huy, Alvaro Linares (Nguyen Thanh Chung), Do Hung Dung, Trinh Duy Long.