Not one player in the current Hong Kong squad was alive when Hong Kong last competed in the finals of the Asian Cup. It is 35 years since Hong Kong competed in the continental championship, yet today the team fly from Tashkent to Bangkok to begin preparing for the second stage of Group A matches with every chance of going to China 2004. With four points from three matches in an unfavourable climate and alien surroundings, the return to Thailand and more familiar heat, humidity and an environment closer to home, Hong Kong's victory over Thailand and draw with Tajikistan has laid a foundation for greater things for a national team that effectively did not exist for two years. 'I'm surprised,' said captain Lee Wai-man. 'I thought our best chance was to beat Tajikistan. Thailand and Uzbekistan are such strong teams. We're over our target.' That Hong Kong are in such a position is even more surprising because it has been achieved on such foundations. Coach Lai Sun-cheung had only two practice sessions and one friendly match to ingrain a style of play that, by necessity, is very different to that of the domestic league. The squad have also travelled with the barest of support - no team manager and doctor and, unlike Thailand, no physical trainer, chef and travelling secretary. 'It's no problem. It's always the same. No manager. No doctor, we've never had it before,' said Lai. 'Preparation is important for every national team, but again for the Hong Kong team every time is the same. In the league we have gweilos who can get under the high ball, but Hong Kong strikers are not as big or strong. We only really have one forward, but this time our defence has done much better.' Lee believes the improvement with better self-belief is a result of the level of activity of the team this year. Disbanded after finishing last in their World Cup qualifying group in 2001, Hong Kong had a perfect reintroduction with comfortable victories over Macau, Taiwan, Mongolia and Guam in the preliminary round of the inaugural East Asian Football Federation Championship in March, followed by matches against Liverpool and Real Madrid. 'The midfield and defence are much more confident, better than before,' said the 30-year-old sweeper. 'Maybe it's because of this we've got better results - seeing the Olympic team do well against South Korea and then only losing by one goal to Japan's Olympic team in the friendly and now beating Thailand, who are still a good team.' Still Hong Kong do not display the swagger and hint of arrogance that defines a successful team and even Lee betrays a hint of uncertainty when contemplating next week's games, which begin on Monday with Hong Kong facing the hosts. 'It's 50-50. Thailand will be very difficult for us because it's so hot. I think the first match is very important. If we can get a draw, our chances will be more like 70 per cent. Thailand have to win three games. One draw and they're finished. There's pressure on both of us.'