AFC Champions League 2017

Eastern have shown Hong Kong football can hold its own among Asian elite, says Jaimes McKee

After a humiliating introduction to Champions League football, the Hong Kong champions have battled valiantly in their last two games

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 March, 2017, 1:12pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 March, 2017, 10:47pm

Eastern forward Jaimes McKee says the Hong Kong champions have shown they can hold their own at the elite Champions League level after two recent battling performances at Mong Kok Stadium.

Chan Yuen-ting’s team are the first Hong Kong side to reach the group stage of the continental competition. After being humbled 7-0 by Guangzhou Evergrande – albeit after having had one man sent off in the first minutes and another with an hour still to play – you feared their participation could be painful viewing for fans of Hong Kong football.

But the signs have been brighter with battling performances in their last two games, a 1-1 draw against Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale that could have been a win, and Tuesday’s night’s 1-0 defeat to South Korea’s Suwon Bluewings where they could have snatched another point.

“Obviously the first game was tough, but we did have two sendings-off and weren’t really sure where we were standing in this sort of level, so I think these two home games proved that we can compete,” said McKee.

“I think it shows that we can play at this level and we can stop them scoring. Obviously our opponents have got more of the ball at the moment but we’re making it really tough for them and we’re giving a good account of ourselves, so I think we’re proud of that and will definitely take confidence from that going into the next few games.”

RECAP: Agonising defeat for Hong Kong's Eastern as they go down 1-0 to Suwon in Champions League

But the competition doesn’t get any easier for Eastern next month as they face a difficult away trip to Suwon and then the return encounter with Chinese champions Guangzhou, who will be looking for another comfortable win having drawn their last two matches.

“It’s going to be interesting, obviously we’re just going to probably go with the same gameplan – be really resilient, try to make it hard for them to have much space and to get many chances, and then hopefully get them on the counter-attack,” said McKee. “There’s still positives we can look at and it’s just going to be a great experience for us.

“It’s fantastic playing in front of a full crowd, the support for the last two games has been amazing, so no matter what the result we just want to put in a good performance for the crowd that come support us and just make the most of this tournament – you don’t know how many times you’re going to get the chance to play these games and the chance to play against top players.”

McKee had the thankless task of plowing a lone furrow up front against Suwon in the absence of injured first-choice striker Manuel Bleda, but did have Eastern’s best chance of the night a few minutes before the Koreans scored. His shot was sweetly hit, but prevented from going in by a diving defender’s leg.

“It was a shame, I thought I struck it quite well, but obviously the defender got in the way,” added the 29-year-old Hong Kong international. “I couldn’t believe it, the ball just sat so nicely for me, I’m not sure I’m going to get too many better chances than that ... but it’s good to be in the position to get the chance and we’ve still got three more games to go, so hopefully there’ll be a few more chances coming along.”

Despite their battling performances in the last two games, the gap in class between Eastern and their opponents has of course been evident, with Hong Kong football simply not at the same level as the J.League or K League.

“Every game we play in this competition we’re playing really tough teams and it is a different standard,” admitted McKee. “They’re just so quick so it takes some getting used to, but it’s really good that we could make it difficult for them

“One thing I noticed today, whenever we had the ball they’re so quick to close you down – in the Hong Kong league you get a second to look around, here you have two or three guys around you all the time.

“And these guys, their touch is so good it’s hard to get close to them – you get close and they’ve passed the ball away again, so you’re sort of doing a lot of shuttle runs from side to side.

“It’s good to get to play against them and get a feeling for how good they are and it’s nice that we can compete to an extent.”