Season kick-off sees four Hong Kong clubs vie for top honours
Powerhouses South China and Kitchee, alongside challengers Pegasus and Eastern, will be the clubs vying for dominance this season
Ambitious Sun Pegasus are keen to get off to a flying start when they kick off the new season against newly promoted Happy Valley at Mong Kok Stadium tonight.
With a budget of more than HK$10 million, Pegasus - along with Eastern Salon - are aiming to break the dominance of powerhouses South China and Kitchee.
These four clubs are likely to be vying for honours in the 12-team league over the next 10 months as Hong Kong soccer begins the transition to a fully professional Premier League in the 2014-15 season.
Pegasus only survived relegation in the final round last season and coach Chan Chi-hong admitted: "We are relieved that the management is continuing to support us. We had some very close results last season and if we continue working hard and can improve our offence, we have very good prospects."
Pegasus have signed Admir Rascic, a 1.92-metre striker capped twice for Bosnia, to partner Hong Kong international striker Jaimes McKee.
Midfielder Aleksandar Randelovic and goalkeeper Josip Skoric are two newcomers, while reliable central defenders Igor Miovic and Paulo Cesar are back for another season. The squad has been further strengthened with the arrival of forward Landon Ling from Southern as well as two players from Citizen - midfielder Michael Campion and forward Yuan Yang.
Eastern return to the First Division after a four-year absence. They have signed two forwards from champions South China - playmaker Manoel Santos and marksman Giovane da Silva - plus former Player of the Year Li Haiqiang, who was with Tuen Mun last season. They have also signed two defenders from the New Territories side - Diego Moreira and Roberto Fronza - while Afonso Clayton has joined from relegated Tai Po. Goalkeeper Paulo da Silva is the only new face from overseas.
"We are very serious and want to challenge for every single trophy," said Eastern director Peter Leung Shou-chi, who led the club to three championships in a row in the 1990s. "We can't compare the current squad with the one two decades ago but no one can doubt our quality and determination. Some may say there are too many old players in our squad who will struggle to stay competitive through a long campaign. But it also tells you that our players are very experienced. Indeed, many of them are just over 30 and I am sure their fitness level is still good enough for the Hong Kong league.
"We still have room for one more foreign player but will probably wait for a while to see which position we need to strengthen further. With other local newcomers such as Cheng Siu-wai, Wong Ching-hung, Man Pei-tak, Leung Kwok-wai and Leung Tsz-chun - all seasoned campaigners - we are quietly confident for the new season."
Kitchee, who have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years by a adopting a Spanish style of play, are sticking to that formula. Coach Josep Gombau has left to join Adelaide, but has been replaced by Alex Gomez, a former Barcelona youth coach.
Their squad is little changed, with the reliable Zeshan Rehman and Fernando Recio at the heart of defence. Footballer of the Year Huang Yang and Lam Ka-wai, who scored against English Premier League champions Manchester United in last month's Barclays Asia Trophy, will control the midfield.
It's in attack where Kitchee have made some changes, with the arrival of former Tai Po striking trio Alexander Akande, Christian Annan and To Hon-to, and flanker Xu Deshuai from Pegasus. "These are players who have proven themselves in Hong Kong and will add to our firepower up front," team manager Chu Chi-kwong said.
Akande and Annan scored more than 30 goals between them last season, while Xu and To proved their potential with the Hong Kong national team.
Champions South China have appointed Cheung Po-chun as their new coach, replacing Liu Chun-fai, who helped them to the league title last season after playing second fiddle to Kitchee the previous two years. Cheung was with relegated Tai Po last season, so will be even more determined to prove that he deserves to coach the champions.
The team, though, have been weakened by the departure of defender Lee Chi-ho, who has joined Chinese Super League side Beijing Guoan. South Korean Ko Kyung-joon has been signed to replace Lee, while midfielder Joao Emir is back after missing all of last season due to injury. The arrival of Naves Aender, from Tai Po, should strengthen their midfield.
The Caroliners have signed Mamadou Barry from Sun Hei but he is yet to prove his ability with a major club. Striker Michael Cheng Lai-hin has failed to live up to the promise he showed early in his career, while Brazilian Dhiego Martins, though dangerous, is prone to injuries.
Only one team will be relegated, with I-Sky Yuen Long, Rangers, Sun Hei and Happy Valley the likely candidates.