Hong Kong relief as AFC steps in to resolve Malaysia-North Korea Asian Cup qualifying dates
Local coaches will now have a clear picture of what needs to be done in their bid to qualify for the 2019 event in UAE
Hong Kong breathed a sigh of relief on Tuesday after the regional governing body at long last finalised fixtures for the remaining Asian Cup group B qualifying fixtures.
Dates for home and away matches between Malaysia and North Korea were up in the air because of political tensions between the two countries, with Hong Kong – who are second in the group – the most likely to be affected by the outcomes of these matches.
Lebanon lead the four-team group and are unlikely to lose or benefit from the Malaysia-North Korea results.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) on Tuesday confirmed that Thailand will act as the neutral venue for both matches, to be played on November 10 and 13, with the stadiums yet to be announced.
Hong Kong team management will now have a clearer picture on what needs to be done in their next match, at home to Lebanon on November 14.
“I am pleased that the uncertainty regarding the dates and venue for the two Malaysia v North Korea matches has been resolved,” said Mark Sutcliffe, chief executive of the Hong Kong Football Association.
“It is also good that both matches will take place before our home tie against Lebanon on November 14.
“This will give us a better understanding of what we need to do in that match to help us to qualify. At the moment our last match in the group is due to take place in North Korea on March 27, 2018.
“The way things are going it looks like the final qualification places won’t be decided until the last round. Our target remains to qualify for the finals in UAE 2019.”
The two matches will have a major bearing on Hong Kong’s hopes of qualifying for the finals.
The first leg was originally scheduled for March 28 in Pyongyang, North Korea but it was postponed twice after the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Malaysia in February sent tensions soaring.
The game was then due to go ahead earlier this month in Pyongyang but was delayed again after Kuala Lumpur banned travel to North Korea as global alarm grew at the regime’s weapons programme.
Kim Jong-nam’s assassination sparked a diplomatic crisis which saw both countries banning each other’s citizens from leaving, and withdrawing their ambassadors. Tensions have since eased.
Hong Kong beat Malaysia 2-0 at home in their last match to go second in the group with five points from four matches.
They had previously drawn 1-1 with Malaysia in Melaka and also held North Korea to a 1-1 draw at home in June. Hong Kong lost their opening match 2-0 to Lebanon in Beirut in March.
The top two teams from each of the six qualifying groups advance to the final. Lebanon lead the table with 10 points from four games, with North Korea on two points from three matches and Malaysia with one point out of a possible nine.