Hong Kong-China World Cup battles inspire Eastern ahead of clash against Guangzhou Evergrande
Coach Chan Yuen-ting says the AFC Champions League match features many players who took part in the two 0-0 draws
Hong Kong champions Eastern aim to take inspiration from the national team’s heroic World Cup displays against China when they take on the big-spending champions from the mainland, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, in the AFC Champions League on Wednesday.
Eastern are the first Hong Kong team ever to make it to the group stages of the competition, while Guangzhou have won it twice, in 2013 and 2015.
The group G opener in Tianhe Stadium has many echoes of the two World Cup qualifying matches China and Hong Kong played in 2015, when Hong Kong pulled off unlikely 0-0 draws home and away.
Many of the same players will be in action for Guangzhou and Eastern, with Chan Yuen-ting – the first female coach to win a men’s professional league – admitting she will follow the same template as her players fly the Hong Kong flag on the mainland again.
One thing that will be different is the lack of support from Hong Kong inside the stadium, as Eastern announced their fans who bought tickets for the game 130km away would not be allowed travel, citing mysterious “safety concerns”.
“I feel very honoured to take part in this match,” said Chan. “There’s many players from the Hong Kong national team in our team and I think we will keep up with the passion we showed in those matches and keep the spirit of never giving up and do our best.
“I can’t predict the result, but I believe it will satisfy the Hong Kong citizens as they have always been supporting us.
“Those [World Cup] matches ended with two draws, we [Hong Kong] performed to our best, and morale was very high. [HK] did well in defending and I think that can inspire us against Guangzhou, though they are quite a different team and have great ability and quality.”
Guangzhou captain Zheng Zhi led China in those two games and said his fellow national teammates had learned their lesson.
“Tomorrow our mindset will be very important,” said the midfielder, who was accused by Hong Kong and Eastern goalkeeper Yapp Hung-fai of calling Yapp “a dog” in the first goalless draw.
“This match might seem easy for some of you, but not me or our coach. It’s going to be quite difficult because it’s our first match of the season.
“We have some knowledge of the strategy of Eastern and I don’t think it’s an easy match at all. We know we have to compete, we hope to win and it’s very important for us to get three points.”
Chan, whose team are top of the Hong Kong Premier League on the back of expansive attacking play, will set them out 5-4-1 against a team worth at least 10 times hers, and Chinese champions the last six years in a row.
“We’ll be changing to a defensive oriented strategy but I think it’s a necessary step for us,” she said. “During the past few days we have made a lot of effort and spent a lot of time to study our strategy and change it for this match.
“We’re fully prepared, we’ll focus on defending and hope we can do our best.”
Guangzhou surprisingly crashed out of the competition at the group stage last season and World Cup-winning coach Scolari likely needs a much improved performance this year for his own job security.
The chairman of sponsors Evergrande has demanded his team win all four trophies on offer, and Guangzhou’s players are on huge cash bonuses for every win and goal in the Champions League.
Scolari seemed in a testy mood, knocking back an opportunity to salute the history-making achievements of Chan. “She is the head coach of the Hong Kong Eastern and I am the head of Evergrande,” was all he had to say, adding
“Tomorrow’s match is very important and I think the key to win the match is to play at our normal level. Of course the first official match will always be difficult and I think our players will make some mistakes, but by making these mistakes we can become stronger that’s the most important thing.”
Chan was far more effusive in her respects for Scolari, but played down the achievement of becoming the first female coach in the Champions League.
“For me what matters is not to create history or to appear as a female coach, I am just honoured to take part in this highest level of Asian club football. It’s our debut and we come here to learn.
“I will be honoured to meet such a great coach and I appreciate his ability and all the awards and trophies he’s won. I’m looking forward to meet him and hope I can learn from him.”
Chan added that Eastern have no injury worries for the match.
Scolari has left record €42 million signing Jackson Martinez out of the Champions League squad after a less than impressive debut season, but still has €40m of top Brazilian talent to call on in the shape of Ricardo Goulart, CSL top scorer with 19 last season, former Tottenham midfielder Paulinho and winger Alan.