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Mikael Severo celebrates after putting Eastern ahead with a header in the first half. Photos: Eastern Long Lions

Eastern Long Lions banish ‘dark days’ to reach AFC Cup knockout stage for first time with win over Tainan City

  • Hong Kong club beat Taiwanese side 3-1 at Buriram Stadium in Thailand to secure progression from Group J
  • Head coach Roberto Losada pays tribute to players after tough season – ‘I’m so proud of all of them’

Eastern Long Lions reached the AFC Cup knockout stage for the first time, after a 3-1 victory over Tainan City at Buriram Stadium in Thailand on Thursday night.

Having failed in two previous attempts to progress, the Hong Kong side topped the three-team Group J with two wins, after seeing off fellow Hong Kong club Lee Man 3-1 in their opening match.

They will now feature in the inter-zone play-off semi-finals in September, with Indian side ATK Mohun Bagan being confirmed as the South Asia zone winners.

Once the two other teams – the Central Zonal final and Asean Zonal final winners – have also been confirmed, a draw will be made for the four teams, with no seedings.

Eastern coach Roberto Losada paid tribute to his players, who made it through the regional cup group stage after a tough domestic season which was abruptly cancelled in February by the Hong Kong government amid a fifth wave of Covid-19 infections in the city.

“I am happy as the head coach for our team effort,” Losada said. “We have gone through a lot of dark days back in Hong Kong during the season.

“We stopped the league and the boys had to work in groups in the parks and in the beaches. They struggled and it was not easy to do what we did. They deserve the qualification, and I am so proud of them, all of them.”

Eastern forward Victor Bertomeu makes an attempt on goal.

The coach, however, said it was too early to talk about preparations for the next stage, as they are waiting for the club’s chief executive – the Guangdong property developer Yau Wing-keung – to return to Hong Kong from France and confirm their plans for next season. The squad still faces a further overhaul, with more players set to leave.

Only needing a draw against their Taiwanese opponents to progress, Eastern got off to a convincing start with an early goal on 17 minutes.

Attacking midfielder Mikael Severo reacted quickest to Fernando Pedreira’s first-time cross that swung in from the left, with the Brazilian steering his downward header into the bottom right corner of Li Guan-pei’s goal.

Eastern coach Roberto Losada.

Tainan City were then denied an equaliser 15 minutes later when Marcos Gondra’s last-gasp challenge in the six-yard box prevented Ange Kouame from taking aim at Yapp Hung Fai’s goal.

Goalkeeper Li kept the deficit to a solitary goal with eight minutes remaining in the half after a smart save to his left, getting a strong hand to Gondra’s low strike after Victor Bertomeu had redirected Leung Kwun-chung’s free kick back towards the edge of the area.

Chen Wei-chuan’s curling cross from the right almost unlocked the Eastern defence two minutes into first-half added time, but Yu Chia-huang’s glancing connection saw his header fly wide of the target.

Eastern defender Leung Kwun-chung (right) and Chen Wei-Chuan of Tainan fight for the ball.

Hong Kong international Sun Ming-him then doubled Eastern’s advantage early in the second half, capitalising on a mistake by Li. The goalkeeper failed to prevent Sun – who missed the last game because of suspension – from picking up possession on the edge of the area and slotting home into an empty net.

However, Tainan gave themselves a glimmer of hope when Kouame pulled a goal back in spectacular fashion on the hour mark. After receiving the ball 20 yards from goal, he held off two defenders, sidestepped Gondra and then rounded goalkeeper Yapp to close the gap.

That hope, however, was extinguished 13 minutes later when Bertomeu struck his third goal in two games. The Spaniard stroked home from eight yards out after Chu Wai-kwan had seen his initial shot blocked by the Tainan defence.