Kuala Lumpur: Head coach Mixu Paatelainen is hoping he can turn the negative of a difficult draw into a positive for the future of Hong Kong's football when Round 2 of the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 begins on Thursday.
Hong Kong will commence their campaign against Cambodia in Phnom Penh before hosting Group C top seeds Islamic Republic of Iran five days later at Hong Kong Stadium in what represents a difficult start to their challenge.
Iraq and Bahrain are also in the group, with the pair meeting in Riffa on Thursday.
See also :
Preview: Group A
Preview: Group B
Heroes, comebacks and last-gasp winners: Four Classic Asian Qualifiers
“Lady luck was not on our side and we’ve got a very tough group, but I turn it around and see the positives,” the former Dundee United and Bolton Wanderers striker told the-AFC.com.
“What I intend to do and what I’d love to do here is get our team a lot younger, I’d like to drop the average age considerably. How quickly we can do that is a question, but I will include youngsters in the squad regularly and hopefully more and more so that the youngsters get the experience.
“I’m coming into it from that side. It’s a great experience for these guys. You have to use these occasions for the younger players, and the older players too even if they’ve been in these situations before.
“It’s a real learning curve. I see real positives there."
Paatelainen, who was appointed Hong Kong head coach in April following the departure of Gary White, takes his team to the Olympic Stadium on Thursday knowing his side face a tricky opener against the Southeast Asians.
“Cambodia away is not easy at all,” he said. “They’ve been together a wee while and they pass the ball well and they’re a really good unit, so that will be a test on its own, never mind Iran in our next game and then Iraq and Bahrain. I’m looking forward to these tough matches and I’m looking towards the future."
“It will be sweaty and sticky and the atmosphere will be bouncing there, that’s for sure. Our job is to silence the crowd and go there with a plan. Hopefully the players will execute the plan and do their jobs. If that happens then I think we have a good chance of getting a quality result.
“But it’s not going to be easy. The atmosphere, the crowd and the surface of the pitch – I’ve not been there myself but I’ve heard it’s a little bit different – the environment, with everything there will be an added challenge.”
Just five days after taking on the Cambodians, Hong Kong face the daunting task of facing an Iran side that, given their status as top seeds in the group, will arrive in east Asia with more preparation time given their lack of a game on the opening match day.
Paatelainen, though, refuses to be overawed by the prospect of taking on a nation that has qualified for each of the last two FIFA World Cup Finals and who remain a serious threat following Marc Wilmots’ arrival as head coach.
“We know if Iran have a match on September 5 or not they’re going to be a very good team to play against,” said the Finn. “That’s a huge challenge. They’re tall, they’re powerful, they’re quick, they’re technical, they’re tactically very good. They’ve got everything."
“I’m not surprised they’re the highest ranked Asian team in the FIFA rankings, but it’s a different kind of challenge. I’m a very positive person and I also want to turn that around.
"We’ve got two different matches coming up and I think that’s good because we can refresh the players’ mind.
“It’s a totally different set up and a totally different mindset and opponent and I think that’s good for the players’ heads, to reboot the system and concentrate on the next challenge. Iran’s a huge challenge but one we’ll gain plenty of excellent experience from facing.”
Photos: Hong Kong Football Association, AFP, AFC
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