STRIKER Paul Nixon underlined his match-winning qualities with the goal that earned Hong Kong champions Eastern a 2-1 victory over South China in the opening game of the new league season at Mongkok Stadium yesterday. Nixon, whose 16 goals helped Eastern win three trophies last season, pounced to head home a right-wing corner from skipper Lee Kin-wo in the 68th minute and give his side the perfect start in their defence of the title. Eastern won the corresponding match 5-0 last season and the narrow victory this time suggests a much closer race for the First Division championship. Peter Leung, team manager of Eastern, said: ''We are very happy to start with a win because we knew we could not expect the same result as last season. ''Before the match I thought there might be only one goal in it and that's how it turned out. ''Every other team was terrible at the start of last season and we were able to win by big scores but now they are much better and much fitter.'' The only new face in the champions' starting line-up, striker Tony Sealy, set up Eastern's first goal for midfielder Tam Siu-wai in the 14th minute but was substituted just seconds before Nixon headed in the winner. Sealy, who has replaced last season's 23-goal leading scorer Dale Tempest, had also been taken off the previous weekend during Eastern's 1-0 victory over the Rest of the League in the Aw Hoe Cup charity match. Added Leung: ''Tony is still not 100 per cent fit after his groin injury but he showed a big improvement on last week. ''Our next match is against Kitchee on September 30 so Dale will be playing against us. I hope Tony is 100 per cent fit for that because I want everyone to see what a good player he is.'' South China, whose opening day defeat last season sparked panic within the club and led to wholesale changes on the foreign player front, were not quite as distraught with yesterday's setback. Said team official Bruce Mok: ''I am quite satisfied with our performance and, with a bit of luck, we could have got at least a draw.'' ''We want a settled side but, with the new players in the team, it will take a few more games to get everything organised.'' In a carnival atmosphere, with both sides receiving colourful and vociferous support, Eastern scored the first goal of the season after 14 minutes. When right-winger Lee Kin-wo knocked the ball into the South China penalty area, Sealy cleverly turned it into the path of midfielder Tam, who shot low into the far corner. South China's new centre forward, Marko Perinovic, squandered two clear chances to equalise within the space of four minutes. First he volleyed wildly wide from Loh Wai-chi's right-wing cross, then he side-footed a shot over the bar after a great run downthe left from South China midfielder Chiu Chung-man. As Eastern held on grimly with half-time in sight, sweeper Chiu Chun-ming was booked for bringing down Anto Grabo. From the resulting free-kick, the Eastern defence were preoccupied with South China's big men and failed to pick up Shum Kwok-pui, who steered Chiu's free-kick past Iain Hesford for the equaliser on 44 minutes. After Nixon's headed goal in the 68th minute, South China threw on Cheung Sai-ho and new signing Au Wai-lun but the Eastern defence came out on top to seal victory.