Taiwan a test for HK's new era
Hong Kong are looking for a flying start under new coach Ernie Merrick when they take on Taiwan in an international friendly at Mong Kok Stadium tonight.
The timing of what would have been a routine friendly between two soccer minnows in terms of their world rankings has made it one of the most important games in the eyes of many fans and the authorities.
Since the government revealed a consultancy study on how to improve the game in the city in March 2010, and implemented Project Phoenix - a revitalisation programme for the sport which comes with additional government funding - all eyes are now turning to the performance of the Hong Kong team.
Both the new chief executive, Gordon McKie, and Merrick are employed under the project with annual salaries of over HK$2 million, while more than HK$20 million will be injected into the Hong Kong Football Association annually to implement drastic changes to save the sport. Hong Kong's world ranking hit a record low 169 in December against their highest of 90 in 1998.
It has gone up to 163 this month.
Taiwan are 166th.
It would be nonsensical to judge former Melbourne Victory coach Merrick, who was appointed only two months ago with a three-year contract, after just one match in charge, but a good result against Taiwan, a team they beat 6-0 in Kaohsiung in October, would strengthen the belief of officials at their Ho Man Tin headquarters that they are moving in the right direction.
Skipper Chan Wai-ho, who plays for powerhouses South China, is calling on his Hong Kong teammates to kick off the new era with a convincing victory.
'This is an important game for Hong Kong and it is vital we play well and win,' the centre-half said. 'We are approaching this game with confidence. We're at home and hope the fans can really get behind the team and cheer us on to victory.
'We are in the middle of our season, so we are all in good shape and ready to play. As a squad we are really looking forward to the match.'
Merrick has repeatedly stressed his Hong Kong team will adopt an attacking style and a five-man midfield will be used to press for the ball and build attacks quickly.
'In attack it is always important how quickly we can use our midfielders to play the ball forward to our strikers,' said Merrick after a training session with his squad. 'We need midfielders that can play accurate passes in behind the defence and [that] these are goalscoring passes.
'Also, I like the wingers to think of themselves as strikers rather than midfielders as the left- and right-side players are not the wingers but are strikers to support forward Chan Siu-ki in the middle.'
The two wingers are likely to be Au Yeung Yiu-chung of South China on the right and Lee Hong-lim of Pegasus on the left, while Kitchee playmaker Lam Ka-wai will play the centre role. The trio will be supported by two defensive midfielders, Leung Chun-pong of South China and Kitchee's Huang Yang, the former captain of China's World University Games team before moving to Hong Kong to continue his studies.
The visitors are led by their captain Chen Po-Liang, who played for Pegasus last season and has recently signed for China First Division side Shenzhen. 'I know Hong Kong soccer very well,' the midfielder said. 'And that's why I was so disappointed when we lost to Hong Kong 6-0 in October as it never reflected the true standard of the two sides.
'We will go all out to prove our quality [tonight].'
Merrick also said they would not take things for granted despite that big win as 'he respects the opponents because all international matches are tough matches'.