Rangers and South China facing do-or-die showdown
Buler Rangers and South China clash in a crucial league match at Mongkok Stadium this afternoon that could prove the turning point in their title aspirations. But first, both teams have obstacles of their own to overcome.
The two teams are level on 17 points and trail league leaders Sun Hei by five points with four games to go. A win will see the winners close the gap to two points, but losing will almost certainly mean dropping out of the title race.
Rangers team manager Philip Lee Fai-lap said: 'The match is as important as a cup knockout match. Even dropping points by drawing will probably see both teams out of the title race.'
The match will be the first competitive outing for both sides since the Carlsberg Cup - and the annual Chinese New Year showcase has had an effect on their preparations. Rangers are worried about their teamwork after several of their players, plus their South Korean player-assistant coach Kim Pan-gon, trained with the Hong Kong League XI.
'We played a friendly with Double Flowers the other day and to be honest our teamwork was not really satisfactory.' said Lee. 'Sure, playing with the best players will improve our players who were selected to represent Hong Kong, but being generally younger and less experienced means it takes us longer to re-group and play as a team.'
But even if teamwork is lacking, Lee said Rangers could still rely on their trademark energetic play and take whatever South China threw at them. 'We are having two training sessions a day,' he said. 'Also Kim Pan-gon is known for his disciplined approach so even during the Chinese New Year period our players made sure they ate the right things and had enough rest. I think our players are in better physical conditions than any other team in the league.'
Looking ahead to today's clash, Lee added: 'We fear nobody, but of course a lot depends on the players when they take to the pitch. I think the Caroliners will be under more pressure than us.'
South China team director Peter Leung Shou-chi was concerned about injuries to key players sustained during the Carlsberg Cup. 'Our team have been together for a year and a few days' less training will not do that much harm,' said Leung.
'The biggest problem we have is that [defender] Yau Kin-wai and [winger] Lee Kin-wo will not be playing because of injuries. But other players in the Carlsberg Cup like [defender] Christiano Cordeiro and [striker] Rochi Putiray had a few days of rest after the tournament and are ready.'
The Carlsberg Cup also gave Caroliners striker Au Wai-lun - who missed the tournament through injury - time to recover and he is expected to play a part today.
Leung said his team could win today if they adopted the right approach. 'Rangers are a good team, but since the beginning of 2003 they have dipped in form and seem to have lost the edge they had at the beginning of the season,' he said. 'As long as our players don't underestimate them, I think South China have a better chance to win.'