Kitchee prove they can compete in ACL knockouts but they now need help to get there

As they finished off their AFC Champions League 2021 group stage campaign with a 0-0 draw against more-illustrious opponents in the form of Cerezo Osaka, Kitchee have proven they can match it with the stronger sides in Asia's premier club competition.

They just now need help if they are to make history by becoming the first team from Hong Kong to advance to the knockout round, as Friday's result was not enough to secure their last-16 berth yet.

At present, Kitchee -- who have done well to secure second spot in Group J after finishing bottom of the pile in their previous ACL appearance -- will sneak in as the third team of the three best-placed runners-up that join the five group winners in the East Zone of the Round of 16.

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However, three groups are still to conclude play and both Gamba Osaka and Daegu could overtake them in Groups H and I respectively.

Kitchee will now have to play the waiting game over the next couple of days before discovering their fate but, should they get there, they have proven they can at the very least frustrate and compete with, if not necessarily better, the competition's best.

Granted, in their two matches against Cerezo -- the standout side in Group J -- Kitchee were on the back foot, only enjoying 27% of possession in Friday's second encounter.

But they were never expected to go toe to toe with a side boasting far more experience at this level and a much stronger squad on paper. If anything, it would have been foolish to attempt so.

Instead, Kitchee coach Alex Chu set his side out to be defensively stable while still aiming to be dangerous on the counter.

Based on the 0-0 draw with Cerezo, the game plan worked. And it is one that will need to be employed again if they get to the Round of 16 with tougher tests lying in wait.

The Kitchee defence, where Park Jun-heong is remarkably the youngest member there at 28, is brimming with experience. Huang Yang, Raul Baena and Cleiton form a midfield triangle that offers plenty of bite but also the ability to be creative in the final third when needed.

And perhaps most importantly for a team that will be looking to soak up the pressure before delivering a sucker punch, they have the perfect man to capitalise on any chances they create in 39-year-old Dejan Damjanovic, who recently became the tournament's all-time top scorer.

Kitchee probably are just lacking that extra bit of quality to reach the latter stages of the competition, yet they will prove a tough team to break down for any opposition they might come up against.

In any case, it would be an achievement in itself for them to even before among the best 16 teams in Asia this season.

But, for now, they will need a couple of results to go their way to even get there in the first place.