Defending HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens champions Aston Villa will face German newcomers Bayer Leverkusen, HKFA U-23 and competition regulars Singapore Cricket Club in an intriguing looking Group C after the draw for the May 26-28 tournament took place at Hong Kong Football Club on Tuesday.
Villa defeated West Ham United 2-0 in last year’s final to lift the trophy for a record sixth time having last been victorious in 2010.
And the holders’ match against Leverkusen – the first side from Germany to compete in the tournament – promises to be one of the most interesting of the group stage.
“We knew it was going to be exciting with the new teams coming in,” said HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens Tournament Director Chris Plowman.
“But looking at the Germans, Bayer Leverkusen, taking on the current champions Aston Villa – and then our own Hong Kong Football Association and Singapore Cricket Club – that’s an interesting group.”
Leverkusen are one of three debutants from Europe, with Olympique Marseille and Cagliari Calcio becoming the first teams from France and Italy respectively to feature at an annual event that now has an even greater international flavour.
In 2015, Atletico Madrid became the first Spanish side to appear at the tournament as they made their debut in style by lifting the Cup following a thrilling 3-2 win over West Ham after extra-time in the final.
Marseille have been drawn in Group D alongside 2015 and 2016 runners-up West Ham, who will be hoping to make it third time lucky at Hong Kong Football Club having reached the last two finals.
Hong Kong Premier League side and 2011 winners Kitchee along with Yau Yee League Select, who represent the local amateur league, make up a competitive looking group.
Cagliari, meanwhile, will make their tournament bow in Group A, where they will meet 2009 and 2010 runners-up Glasgow Rangers, who return after a two-year absence.
South Korea’s FC Seoul, who reached the semi-final on their debut, and Hong Kong Football Club make up the group.
“We wanted to become more international,” added Plowman. “We were fortunate enough to get Atletico Madrid in 2015 and they were a just a revelation. They played fantastic football and came back in the final from 2-0 down to win.
“That got us excited and we thought let’s carry that on and go out to more of the European leagues and see if this event will be of interest to them and they all responded positively.”
For local Premier League side Hong Kong Football Club, who won the Plate in 2015 after defeating Leicester City on penalties following a 0-0 draw in the final, the group will be a huge test against sides with contrasting styles from all over the world.
Last time out, the hosts came third in Group A behind Aston Villa and Newcastle United, before beating Thai Youth Football Home 1-0 in the quarter-finals of the Plate before Stoke City eventually brought their run to an end in the semi-finals.
“It’s a tough draw, but we’re looking to [get through] and play in the Main tournament,” said Hong Kong Football Club captain Andrew Wylde, who represented the hosts in both the 2015 and 2016 editions.
“It’s good fun, but it’s going to be tough. You get close to them and they’ll spin you, you give them time and they’ll turn at you. The fitness is one thing, but it’s the ability to stick with them with their quality.”
Finally, 2013 winners Leicester– winners of the Shield last year – have been paired with 2016 semi-finalists Wellington Phoenix, Japan’s Kashima Antlers and HKFC Captain’s Select.
For reigning English Premier League champions Leicester, the match-up with Wellington marks a repeat of last year’s quarter-final in which the A-League side from New Zealand ran out 2-1 winners, while Kashima – who also reached the last eight in 2016 – are returning for a second successive year.
In the Masters tournament, holders Citi All Stars, who won the competition for the first-time last year after beating local side USRC 3-1 in the final, have been drawn in Group A alongside Singapore Cricket Club Tigers, HKFC Masters, Discovery Bay and last year’s beaten finalists.
In Group B, Playon Pros – who will bring with them an exciting line-up of former English Premier League players, have been paired with Wallsend Boys Club, Kowloon Cricket Club Veterans, HKFC Chairman’s Select and Yau Yee League Masters.
“The format is great because there’s always lots of action on the pitch and the games are relatively short,” added Hong Kong Football Association Chief Executive Mark Sutcliffe.
“There’s a lot of space on the pitch for people to exploit so it’s a very exciting format. There are some fantastic teams and big names, so this is a great opportunity for some of our players to test themselves against players from other countries.”