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Eastern ‘ready to return’ to AFC Champions League as Kitchee attack Hong Kong FA chief for ‘blunder’ in eligibility fiasco

Premier League club Kitchee lashed out at Hong Kong Football Association chief executive Mark Sutcliffe for their failure to be allowed into the 2017 AFC Champions League main draw, with champions Eastern now saying they are willing to return to the elite regional competition.

After Eastern initially pulled out of the Champions League, Kitchee – who as runners-up were only in the qualifying play-offs – were put forward by the HKFA for the main draw place.

But the AFC confirmed to the Post on Thursday that their rules would not allow Kitchee to take Eastern’s place, and they would have to remain in the qualifying competition.

Kitchee boss Ken Ng Kin claimed on Friday that Sutcliffe had been informed about the rules by the AFC in October but the clubs involved never knew about this.

Sutcliffe, however, said Kitchee’s claims contains “significant inaccuracies”.

Hong Kong’s Champions League debut in doubt with AFC set to block Kitchee’s bid to replace Premier League winners Eastern

“We would have had ample time to reverse the board’s decision to replace Eastern by Kitchee if we knew the AFC’s concerns long ago,” said Ng.

“Sutcliffe has to take the responsibility for his administrative blunder as the clubs involved have been left with no idea what to do.

“This makes Hong Kong soccer an embarrassment and we will report the case to the board.”

In July, Eastern said they would withdraw from the tournament owing to financial difficulties, although they changed their mind five days later.

Sutcliffe is in South Korea for an ACL workshop and said: “Firstly, I think it is sad and unnecessary that this issue has been brought into the public domain. It should have been discussed in private.

“However, now that it is, all I can say at this juncture is that the Kitchee version of events contains many fundamental and significant inaccuracies. I will correct these after I have met with officials from the AFC and return to Kong Kong.

“I am hopeful that we can work together for the benefit of Hong Kong football, I’m sure that’s what we all want.”

Eastern executive director Peter Leung Shou-chi said the club were willing to play in the ACL but said it would be up to the HKFA.

“As the Champions, we are very disappointed of missing the opportunity of playing in the 2017 Champions League main round,” said Leung. “We thought we might have the chance after knowing they can’t change the team but in the end it’s the decision of the board and we will be trying our best to realise the goal in future.”

Kitchee can still start in the Champions League qualifying play-off second round at home on January 31, but that date clashes with the annual Lunar New Year Cup – of which Kitchee are hosts.

Hong Kong’s slot in the group stage is now set to go to another club from a country ranked higher than Hong Kong.

According to the AFC rules, if an eligible club who refuses to enter the competition, despite being licensed and meeting the sporting criteria, the slot allocated to its member association shall be annulled, regardless of whether it is a direct slot or play-off slot.