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Ma Hei-wai celebrates with Eastern teammate Chu Wai-kwan after scoring against Lee Man. Photos: Eastern Long Lions

Eastern off to flying start in AFC Cup with 3-1 win over Lee Man in all-Hong Kong affair

  • Eastern will advance to the next round if they beat Tainan City of Taiwan next week in three-team group
  • Teen midfielder Ma Hei-wai earns high appraise after scoring one goal and assisting another for Victor Bertomeu

Eastern Long Lions got off to a flying start in the AFC Cup group stage, thanks largely to their disciplined defence and the contribution of youngster Ma Hei-wai as they came from behind to beat Lee Man 3-1 in Buriram, Thailand on Friday.

Despite losing almost half of their squad from the beginning of last season amid a huge upheaval, Roberto Losada’s side secured a convincing result that could go a long way to sending them into the next round.

With only three teams in contention, Eastern need just one more win when they face Tainan City – who are widely considered to be the weakest side in Group J – to be certain of progression.

Lee Man must beat Tainan City on Monday to keep their slim hopes alive, and hope the Taiwanese side secure a huge upset victory against Eastern on Thursday.

Victor Bertomeu scores for Eastern as Lee Man defender Tsui Wang-kit looks on. Photo: Eastern Long Lions

While striker Victor Bertomeu was named the man of the match after scoring a double, it was 18-year-old attacking midfielder Ma that stole the limelight, scoring the equaliser and providing the assist for Bertomeu to put Eastern ahead in first-half added time.

But Eastern also had reserve goalkeeper Liu Fu-yuen to thank, with his reliability in-between the posts helping them get the job done in the absence of injured first choice Yapp Hung-fai, who played for Hong Kong in the Asian Cup qualifiers in India.

Head coach Losada lauded his players’ performance and was deeply impressed by Ma, as well as forward Chu Wai-kwan.

Ma Hei-wai chases Lee Man’s Jonatan Acosta. Photo: Eastern Long Lions

“We have had a fantastic game and I am very proud of the players, especially those who haven’t played for a long time,” he said. “Special mention goes to Ma, an 18-year-old boy who played 90 minutes under a lot of pressure. He did a fantastic job.

“Chu also gave us a lot in defence but all of the players made a great, great effort.”

The coach also thanked four Eastern fans who travelled all the way from Hong Kong to support their team.

“For these kinds of people, the players gave everything on the pitch and I appreciate them a lot,” Losada said.

Playing their first game since January, when the Hong Kong Premier League was shut down by the government because of pandemic restrictions, Eastern found themselves a goal down in just the ninth minute.

Victor Bertomeu celebrates after scoring for Eastern. Photo: Eastern Long Lions

Lee Man forward Ferreira Givanilton, whose goal secured a 1-0 victory over Eastern in last year’s tournament, cut inside from the left with his right-footed curling effort from the edge of the box giving goalkeeper Liu no chance.

Lee Man, who beat Mongolian side Athletic 220 2-1 in a group stage playoff in April, looked promising in the opening stages. But then Ma’s equaliser on 16 minutes – with a neat low drive from the left side of the box – changed the game.

Just before the break, Ma was instrumental again when his long ball found Bertomeu, who chested it down before slotting home past goalkeeper Chan Ka-ho.

Bertomeu had another chance early in the second half but was denied by the post. The Spaniard soon made amends on 60 minutes, scoring with a header from a corner kick to make it 3-1 to Eastern.

Lee Man threw everything at Eastern with 30 minutes left, bringing on forwards Kim Seng-yong and Lee Hong-lim to strengthen their attack. But they could not find a way through Eastern’s defence, and are now on the brink of elimination.