HK stars smiling in the rain

THE Hongkong football fans who chose to celebrate Lunar New Year in the cold and rain at Mongkok Stadium on Saturday were rewarded with another handsome display by a local league selection in the traditional four-team invitation tournament.

A hat-trick from skipper Dale Tempest and one apiece from Marko Perinovic and Anto Grabo carried the Hongkong League XI to a crushing 5-0 victory over Denmark Under-21s - and into tomorrow's Carlsberg Cup final against Switzerland, who beat Japan 4-3 in apenalty shoot-out after a 1-1 draw over 90 minutes.

On a waterlogged pitch, Hongkong's more direct approach paid dividends against a young Danish side whose attempts to build from the back were thwarted by the heavy going and by a cosmopolitan collection of players determined to win the tournament for the third successive year.

Tempest was quick to point out that on another day and on another pitch the match could have been quite different but, nevertheless, said the result was a good advertisement for the game in Hongkong.

''It shows again that the standard here is a lot stronger than everyone thinks,'' said Tempest, who is playing in his fourth Lunar New Year tournament.

''Everyone keeps waiting for the bubble to burst and maybe it will one day. But as long as there are enough quality players in the league there is every chance we can keep it going.'' Regarding the conditions, Tempest added: ''On a nice pitch it could have been a bit different because they played it around nicely and got around the back of us a few times.'' The watery conditions and lack of experience in the young Danish side could not excuse them conceding a goal as early as the eighth minute.

Right-winger Lee Kin-wo, having won a corner, knocked in the flag-kick and saw Perinovic climb superbly above the defence and direct a powerful header into the net.

With Michael Hansen directing the play in midfield, the Danes were able to free the dangerous Brian Skaarup down the left flank, where he was opposed by Kitchee's young sweeper Yau Kin-wai, playing at right-back.

On a dry pitch Yau would have had a busy 90 minutes, but his workload was lightened 25 minutes into the game when Skaarup went off, having hurt his right ankle in a touchline challenge with George Haniotis.

Already one goal down and one player injured, things went from bad to worse for Denmark when Hongkong right-winger Lee played the ball through to Grabo, whose low right-foot drive from just inside the penalty area gave the 'keeper, Tonni Henriksen, no chance.

The match was won and lost in the space of four minutes shortly after the half-hour mark.

When Haniotis put his defence in trouble with a careless pass, goalkeeper Iain Hesford was out briskly and bravely to deny centre-forward Martin Johansen and protect Hongkong's two-goal lead.

That lead became 3-0 in the 37th minute when Henriksen was slow in meeting Yau's free-kick and Tempest's glancing header bounced into an empty net.

The 'keeper was at fault for the fourth goal, too, failing to pick up Grabo's through-ball and watching in despair as Tempest struck it home from close range.

Hongkong saved their best goal until six minutes from the end.

Having charged down a Denmark free-kick on the edge of their own area, Hongkong counter-attacked with a great pass from Grabo to Tempest, who finished in style with his left foot.

In the second semi-final the strong Swiss made all the running but could not score until the 56th minute, when striker Beat Sutter finished off some good work by impressive left-back Regis Rothenbuhler.

The cowbells of the small band of Swiss supporters were silenced seven minutes later, however, when Japan substitute Hisashi Kurosaki's shot beat the defensive wall and squirted through the hands of Swiss 'keeper Stefan Lehmann.

Switzerland should have wrapped it up before the penalty shoot-out, which they won by converting their first four kicks and seeing Lehmann save Japan's fourth and fifth attempts.