Defending champions Kitchee are starting to feel the heat of their hectic schedule as they prepare to take on South China in the first leg of their FA Cup semi-final at Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground this evening.
The team will have to leave for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, shortly after the game en route to Padang to take on their Indonesian rivals in their AFC Cup group E match on Wednesday.
After the Padang match, they have to return to Hong Kong immediately for a crucial league encounter against South China next Sunday that will probably decide the First Division title.
Coach Josep Gombau said while they would not give up the FA Cup without a fight, the league encounter with South China would still be their priority.
"Every match is important to us," said the Spaniard. "But we now face three difficult games in a row and in between we have to fly to Indonesia and return. It makes the job more difficult."
Kitchee's hopes of winning the league seemed impossible just a month ago, but then leaders South China suffered two surprising defeats, 2-1 to Tuen Mun on March 16 and then a 1-0 reverse to strugglers Yokohama on Thursday. The Caroliners are now only two points ahead of Kitchee in the standings with three games left for both teams, including Sunday's pivotal match-up.
Gombau said those expatriates who cannot play in the AFC Cup because of the quota system would probably be given the chance today against the Caroliners. They include Daniel Cancela, Matthew Lam and Yago Gonzalez, while Guo Jianqiao is likely to replace regular goalkeeper Wang Zhenpeng.
"We have to adopt a rotation system as we have 21 players and I believe they are all up to the standard," said the coach.
South China coach Liu Chun-fai admitted his side's morale was low after the two consecutive defeats in the league but that they would pick themselves up for today's cup tie.
"When we take on Kitchee, it's always an important match. Our fans know this and so do Kitchee's," Liu said. "But since it is only the first leg, we don't need to throw everything into attack but take a cautious approach."
Sun Pegasus, meanwhile, are sitting pretty in the other cup semi-final, beating Wofoo Tai Po 1-0 in the first leg at Yuen Long Stadium yesterday. Second-half substitute Xu Deshuai scored the only goal in the 77th minute. "The result is not too bad given that we now have the advantage, but we must improve our finishing in the second leg if we want to reach the final," Pegasus coach Chan Chi-hong said.
Tai Po could prove a more difficult proposition in the return leg as they were missing injured winger Christian Annan and centre half Clayton Afonso through suspension yesterday.