Kitchee clinch Hong Kong Premier League title – but should they stick or twist after Diego Forlan flop?
Champions retain their crown with a point against Pegasus at Mong Kok Stadium as attentions turn to AFC Cup, but their next moves could be telling
They’ve only gone and done it. Last season’s Hong Kong Premier League champions Kitchee needed just a point against second-placed Pegasus on Friday night to confirm the end of this season’s one-horse race and retain their title.
In the end it was comfortable thanks to Lucas scoring in the fourth minute and the crowd had got their full songbook out to serenade the champions by the final whistle.
That was the aim for Kitchee at the start of the season: to cement their place at the apex of Hong Kong football and secure continental competition for 2019. They have done that, and more.
These are their first back-to-back championships since the league rebranded to the Premier League in 2014-15. They have won three out of four titles since then.
Whether they play in the AFC Champions League or the AFC Cup will only be decided next year. Because Hong Kong’s coefficient has dropped over the last few years, they will not get a pass to the Champions League group stage in 2019.
Instead, the Hong Kong champions will enter the Champions League in the second qualifying round and will need to win two games, that and the playoff which will be away, to progress to the group stage.
This year’s first foray into the Champions League for Kitchee has been a year of breaking ground: the first win for a Hong Kong side, the first goal scored by a Hongkonger and the first time in years there has been a decent crowd to watch a domestic team in the city.
They also came good on their owner’s promise to go better than Eastern, who won a solitary point in their debut season.
It could have been even better. This season’s Champions League dream died last week with a last-minute loss to Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian.
That it lasted till the end of the fifth game was a credit to the players and the coaching staff who have undoubtedly learned quickly from playing against Asia’s best.
The difference between the 3-0 loss away to Tianjin in the opening game and the last-minute loss was encouraging as much as it was heartbreaking.
What was frustrating was that the club’s top-scorer was watching on from the stands. Neither injured nor suspended, Lucas Silva was left out of the Champions League squad for star signing Diego Forlan and fans were left to wonder if that was the right decision.
Yes, fewer people would have gone to the first games perhaps but a sharper striker may have done better with the half-chances that were the hallmark of Kitchee at this level.
Forlan, lest we forget, was 38 on arrival, with a year since his last outing – and that was in the Indian Super League.
He did better in Hong Kong than Nicky Butt and Mateja Kezman did, but had little to prove and did not set the world alight. That is not to say that it was wrong for Kitchee to sign him.
His star quality, even faded, generated interest to the point where the club believed they could half-fill Hong Kong Stadium’s 40,000 seats, where they moved to from the more intimate surrounds of Mong Kok.
More than 13,000 were there to see Kitchee face South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the opening game. That’s double the best crowd that Kitchee have had for some time and would have been more but for issues with ticketing .
That many could not get in because of queues, and the hosts were 5-0 down at half-time, may explain why there was a sharp drop-off for the next game.
Those who did were rewarded with a last-minute winner and wild scenes. Kitchee had improved upon Eastern’s single point in 2017 – just as boss Alex Chu Chi-kwong said they would.
This was Kitchee’s fourth game and the fifth brought a hope that lasted until the 89th minute of Tianjin Quanjian’s visit to Mong Kok, where 6,2999 watched on after the game had to be moved because of the Hong Kong Sevens – a scheduling conflict that goes to show where Kitchee fit into the city’s sporting landscape.
So what’s next for the champions? Do they twist again and bring in a player to generate interest, or cut their losses?
Forlan has not impressed in his time here, scoring five league goals that actually came in just two games, but Kitchee were right to go for broke.
This side stands a good chance of winning the AFC Cup, especially with the addition of another big name player alongside the quality of Christian Vadocz.
Sure, it’s not the glamour of the Champions League but what it lacks in star quality it more than makes up for in winnability. Nothing interests Hong Kong football fans more than winning.
No Hong Kong side has ever won it, in fact not one has got past the semis, Kitchee reaching that stage in 2014, and South China and Sun Hei having been there before them.
South China’s 38,000 for their 2007 semi-final was the last crowd of serious note. With South China and seemingly now Yuen Long choosing to go amateur and drop out of the Premier League, Kitchee arguably have a responsibility as the league’s standard bearers to take the AFC Cup seriously.
Kitchee have learned a lot this season, but the biggest lesson could be from what they choose to do next.