The Lunar New Year Cup will feature both local and international star players. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
The Lunar New Year Cup, the annual footballing showpiece for Chinese New Year, will be held at Hong Kong Stadium on Feb 5 and Feb 7. This year, the four participating teams include a Hong Kong League selection, Shandong Luneng from the Chinese Super League, J-League side Sagan Tosu and Auckland City from New Zealand. The tournament will be played in a knock-out format with two semifinals on the first day of Lunar New Year: First Auckland take on Shandong at 4 pm, and then the hosts face Sagan Tosu roughly two hours later.
The main attraction of the tournament will be former Spanish international and Sagan Tosu star Fernando Torres, who is expected to draw in local fans. Before his move to the J-League, Torres took the field for sides like Liverpool and Chelsea, and also played for his boyhood club Atlético Madrid in La Liga. Torres is one of the most accomplished players to ever have played the professional game, having won the World Cup, European Championships and the FIFA Confederations Cup with Spain as well as, countless domestic and individual awards in his club career. In their last J-League campaign, Sagan Tosu battled to stay out of the relegation zone until the very last day of the season and survived by a very narrow margin. They have the very consistent Yoshiki Takahashi and Hideto Takahashi in midfield to help dictate the play, and their manager, Kim Myung-Hwi, sees the tournament as a good preparation for the coming season.
Spanish striker Fernando Torres currently plays for Sagan Tosu in Japan's J League. (PHOTO COURTESY OF SAGAN TOSU)
Shandong Luneng will be the first Chinese Super league side to join the tournament since 2013, when Shanghai East Asia (now Shanghai SIPG) took part. Shandong had a very successful recent CSL campaign, finishing third behind champions SIPG and powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande. Amongst their ranks are experienced midfielders Jin Jingdao and Hao Junmin, as well as strong defenders, such as Brazilian Gil, Zhang Chi and Wang Tong. The attacking line is formed by Italian Graziano Pellè and Roger Guedes from Brazil. Pellè was prolific for his previous side Southampton and has continued his goal scoring form for Shandong. Since taking over from German coach Felix Magath, manager Li Xiaopeng has established a very consistent side who have proven very hard to break down and defeat. Shandong recently have been chasing Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini, and Lunar New Year Cup hosts Pegasus confirmed the possibility that he could give his debut in Hong Kong.
Auckland City, who were the 2017 Lunar New Year Cup champions after defeating Kitchee 1-0 in a close final, will hope to repeat their success this year. Several of their players are originally from Spain, including goalkeeper Eñaut Zubikarai and midfielder Albert Riera. Auckland also have a strong international club pedigree, as they have been regulars in the FIFA Club World Cup. Their best result was in 2014 when they finished third.
Local football fans are hoping this tournament could be a new dawn for the annual event, which used to attract national teams like Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Iran, Denmark, Norway, as well as established club sides. A lack of sponsorship in the past few years has seen the tournament diminish slightly, but in this year Hong Kong Premier League club Pegasus FC decided to organize the cup by themselves.
Southern player Shay Spitz was originally called up to play for the hosts, though had to pull out due to injury. With the bulk of the Hong Kong League selection made up of Pegasus players, Spitz addressed if players from the other teams would be able to adapt so quickly to their new teammates under the guidance of coach Kevin Bond.
Auckland City won the Lunar New Year Cup in 2017 after defeating Kitchee. (PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRISTOPHER KL LAU)
“While the players may not have had enough time to gel as a team, they play one another every week throughout the course of a season. So, players start to get an idea of other players’ tendencies, with the goal now to take that information and use it to mesh and play more fluidly. Hopefully, it will be enough to put on a great show for the fans and overcome Sagan Tosu.”
Thousands of fans used to flock to Hong Kong Stadium to see star names like Roberto Carlos, Ronaldinho, Raul, or Hristo Stoichkov in the past. Spitz believes a huge name like Fernando Torres should also make a difference.
“I think anytime you have a game featuring someone of Fernando Torres caliber, you are going to get people coming to watch the game. He is a massive name in football and this is a fantastic opportunity for football fans to see him play live.”
All games take place at Hong Kong Stadium, with tickets ranging between HK$180 and HK$480 for a two-day pass.
Shandong Luneng vs Auckland City, Tue 5 Feb, 4:00 pm
Hong Kong League XI vs Sagan Tosu, Tue 5 Feb, 6:15 pm
Game for 3rd Place, Thu 7 Feb, 4:00 pm
Final, Thu 7 Feb, 6:15 pm
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