Kitchee face stern test in Vietnam against Vissai Ninh Binh
Hong Kong league champions must contend with the heat in their AFC Cup quarter-final opening leg
Kitchee's attempt to become a regional force will be put under scrutiny when they take on Vissai Ninh Binh in Vietnam in an AFC Cup quarter-final opening leg on Tuesday.
With the arrival of new coach Jose Molina this summer, the Hong Kong champions are confident of surpassing their previous record in the regional cup competition - reaching the last eight as they did last year before being beaten 2-1 in both legs by Al Faisaly of Jordan.
Kitchee have not brought in any new foreign players, and are relying on Molina's top-class coaching to lift their standards to be able to compete effectively against their Asian counterparts.
The former Spanish international had successful playing spells with La Liga sides Atletico Madrid and Deportivo La Coruna before moving into coaching in 2009. He briefly coached Villarreal A in 2012 and was the coach for Getafe B before coming to Hong Kong.
Molina started Kitchee's preseason work early last month and believes the players have had sufficient training for the crucial cup tie.
Although a draw in Ninh Binh should give them sufficient advantage before the return leg next week, Molina wants more from his charges, although he knows they face the problems of travel and playing before a hostile crowd in hot, humid weather.
"We have gained a good picture of how they play through video footage and although they are a strong team, I believe we have the quality to beat them despite playing away from home," said the coach. "The weather conditions are difficult because of the heat but the players have done sufficient training to cope with it.
"We may not be in peak form as this is our first match of the season, but the team spirit is high, the morale is good and the players all want to do well."
Midfield powerhouse Lam Ka-wai needs a fitness test today to determine whether he can start, while injured left back Cheung Kin-fung is almost certainly out, with Tsang Chi-hau the likely replacement.
Kitchee retain the same four expatriates in the squad that helped them win through to the last eight last year. They include strikers Juan Belencoso and Jorge Tarres and their two centre halves, Fernando Recio and Jang Kyung-Jin.
Ninh Binh are no strangers to Hong Kong as they beat South China in the group stage. But the Vietnamese club withdrew from their domestic competition as several players were found guilty of match-fixing. However, they are still allowed to continue in the AFC Cup and have the support of fellow Vietnamese clubs for supplying players.