Brave HK give Koreans a fright
Hong Kong had the nerve to hold World Cup semi-finalists South Korea to a 1-1 scoreline at the half-time, thanks to a debut strike by Nigerian Lawrence Akandu, but were unable to hold on, losing by a respectable 3-1 in the opening match of the East Asian Football Federation Championship in Tokyo's National Stadium.
Akandu's scrambled effort in the 34th minute, described by Korea coach Humberto Coelho as 'quite accidental', negated Kim Do-heon's 23rd-minute opener, but the Koreans were able to reassert their authority with second-half goals from Kim Do-hoon and Ahn Jung-hwan and put the game beyond Hong Kong's reach.
Hong Kong coach Kenny Lai Sun-cheung felt there were plenty of reasons to feel proud.
'For the first half I think we shocked them. Our team had a very good spirit and they deserve credit for that,' Lai said.
Hong Kong made a promising start against a Korean side featuring five regulars from the World Cup, keeping the game quiet for the first 20 minutes despite losing Kwok Yue-hung to an early injury. It wasn't until the 23rd minute that the Koreans got their first shot on target - a Lee Eul-yong effort tipped over the bar by Fan Chun-yip. From Lee's corner, Szeto Man-chun eventually headed clear to the edge of the box, where Kim Do-heon, making only his second appearance for his country, volleyed into the bottom corner.
The goal was followed by a flurry of close shaves, but all from long-range as Ahn, in particular, threatened. But instead of the anticipated goal avalanche, Hong Kong had the temerity to equalise.
Akandu, playing for the first time since becoming eligible for the SAR, rode his luck as his chest down bobbled off keeper Lee Won-jae and captain Yoo Sang-chul and he was able to get enough of a touch to roll the ball over the line.
'I think in the first half we didn't play very well - so slowly,' said Coelho. 'This was good for Hong Kong, because it gave them much time to come back. In the second half we played with more width and speed and that was better for us.'
That speed put paid to any optimism Hong Kong may have had at the interval, as it allowed the Koreans to score twice in the space of seven minutes.
Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, the K-League champions for the past three seasons, provided the inspiration for the first in the 50th minute as half-time substitute Kim Dae-eui's cross supplied clubmate Kim Do-hoon with an easy header. Then Fan failed to get a touch to Lee's far post corner, leaving Ahn to head in off the cross bar.
Hong Kong were soundly beaten but far from disgraced, and Kenny Lai was convinced his side will benefit from the experience.
'I thought these matches could either help or damage my players. They were very excited at half-time, and although in the second half they lost some of their concentration and determination I'm sure the first half will give them a lot of confidence.'
Meanwhile, Japan quickly demonstrated the gulf in class between themselves and China, comfortably defeating the mainlanders 2-0 in the second game.
Goals from Tatsuhiko Kubo, at the beginning and end of the match, initiated by China giving the ball away and helped by poor decision-making by goalkeeper Liu Yunfei, settled an encounter that China never threatened to win.
'Kubo did very well, he scored the two goals and caused us a lot of problems and without a doubt he was the player of the match,' said China's Dutch coach Arie Haan. 'We had the ball before both goals and it wasn't necessary to lose it, but we are getting closer and closer to how we want to play.
'To win games we need to create goals and we need more creativity around the 18-yard box. I'm not unsatisfied, but I know we can do better.'
Japan's Brazilian coach Zico said: 'Kubo is a talented striker, you could say he is a natural forward. He moved well and created space very well.'