Asian Games: Hong Kong look to the future after bowing out with heavy last-16 loss to AFC champions Uzbekistan
Team are eliminated after a 3-0 loss to one of the tournament favourites but coach thinks it would have been a different story without red card
It was always going to be a huge ask for Kenneth Kwok Ka-lok’s young Hong Kong side up against the AFC under-23 champions Uzbekistan in the last-16 of the Asian Games on Thursday. When they were reduced to 10 men before half-time, that task became near impossible.
Still, Kwok managed to rouse his charges, as he has done throughout this tournament, and Hong Kong were far from disgraced playing out a spirited second half against the men from Central Asia.
Kwok went as far as to suggest that but for the straight red shown to luckless right-back Yu Pui-hong, who had clearly been highlighted for closer assessment by Uzbekistan’s creative players, it would have been a different story.
“If we had not received this red card, it would not have been the same result,” Kwok said. “We actually defended pretty well and everything was going according to plan at the start. It was a pretty soft red card and I was really surprised by the decision.”
There was an undisputable gulf in class. Kwok acknowledged as much shortly after the loss to hosts Indonesia on Monday forced them into the group of third-placed qualifiers where they were overmatched with the team every side wanted to avoid. Kwok said he had been working on defensive set-ups in training in preparation for a potential Uzbekistan clash.
That 10-man Hong Kong managed to keep the score to just three should be lauded. A splendid strike from Ikromjon Alibaev opened the scoring on 27 minutes.
Yu was given his marching orders on 42 minutes, marking the moment the tie got away from Hong Kong.
The half-time stats were damning, a conservative Hong Kong had managed just one shot, a tame off-target effort, and had occupied just 28 per cent of the possession.
Javokhir Sidikov added a second on the hour, and five minutes later Zabikhillo Urinboev settled matters capping a fine move.
Uzbekistan have been operating at a higher level so far at this tournament. They have won all their matches, are yet to concede a goal and have now scored 13 of their own on their way to the quarter-finals, and the score could have been much harsher on Hong Kong.
But as they have done on so many occasions when under the cosh in this tournament, Kwok’s men defended manfully aided in no small part by the hulking centre-back pairing of 22-year-olds Vasudeva Lilley Nunez and Lau Hok-ming, who displayed craft beyond their years and will surely play a big part in Hong Kong’s future.
It was to the future were an upbeat Kwok preferred to look during the post-match media conference. He commended his players on a job well done in Indonesia and said he hoped that they were better players for the experience of the last fortnight.
“I was with these players three or four years ago,” Kwok said. “When I joined the FA they were the first team I managed.
“I believe these under-23s will be the key players in four years. I want all of them to be in the senior team. I believe there is a good chance.”
Pressed about his own future in relation to the still-vacant managerial position with Hong Kong’s full team, Kwok displayed deftness himself, expertly sidestepping the question while a no doubt intensifying recruitment process continues apace back home at HKFA headquarters.
“Sure, I would be interested [if an opportunity arose] ... I always want to contribute to my country,” Kwok said.
Hong Kong matched their best performance at the Asian Games here, for a third straight edition. Thrown in with the region’s best at age-group level, they certainly did not sink, but were left wanting when up against the cream of the competition.
A change is needed if Hong Kong are to better this showing four years from now. Could Kwok be the man to lead it?
“Hopefully I can contribute to my players – one day leading them to a tournament,” he added.