Hong Kong's young players will have to raise the bar, physically and mentally, if they want to stay competitive in the region, national team head coach Ernie Merrick has warned.
The youngsters have been given a tough lesson as they prepare for their last group match against Thailand in the AFC Under-22 Cup qualifiers in Vientiane today, having lost all four of their games.
'I would not blame the boys as they have done their best,' said Merrick (pictured). 'But the result is a good measure of Hong Kong soccer against countries from the region.
'In fact, I am struggling to fix the team for the Thailand match as many of the players are exhausted and their legs are half dead after playing extensively under the heat in Laos.'
Hong Kong lost to Cambodia 3-2, China 5-1, group leaders North Korea 1-0 and 2-0 to the hosts.
'There are only 18 league games in the First Division with a couple more in the knockout cups and there are very limited opportunities for the young players,' Merrick said. 'If they don't play regularly, they don't have the fitness.
'Other teams in the group have done a lot in their youth development programmes and we need to put a better system in place to nurture our future players.'
Merrick did praise Rangers striker Lam Hok-hei and midfielders Tam Lok-hin of Citizen and Ngan Lok-fung of Kitchee, saying the trio had been outstanding and had a lot of potential.