Hong Kong's Kitchee in the running to make ACL history but what has fueled their rapid rise?

Kitchee remain in with a chance of making history by becoming the first club from Hong Kong to reach the knockout round of the AFC Champions League.

But few would have guessed it based on their last appearance in Asia's premier club competition in 2018, when they lost five of their six matches, conceding 14 goals in the process and scoring just once.

Fast forward three years and they currently find themselves assured of a top-two finish in Group J after racking up ten points from five games, one behind Cerezo Osaka who they face off with in an outright qualification duel on Friday.

Considering Kitchee did not feature at this level for the past two years, instead having to settle for the second-tier AFC Cup, what has fuelled this rapid rise?

Of course, good fortune is never the sole reason but the luck of the draw has certainly helped.

With the other two teams in Group J being debutants Port and a Guangzhou youth squad, Kitchee always stood a good chance of finishing second behind Cerezo.

Port loomed as their main hurdle but they defeated the Thai side in their campaign opener, before Tuesday night's 1-1 draw in the return encounter ensured they would not be caught in second place.

Nonetheless, credit has to be given where it is due and Kitchee have certainly looked better prepared for a tilt at advancing to the knockout round.

It would be easy -- and ill-informed -- to attribute their improvement solely to veteran striker Dejan Damjanovic, a former Montenegro international who was top scorer in South Korea's K League 1 for three successive seasons between 2011 and 2013.

Of the six goals Kitchee have scored in the campaign so far, Damjanovic netted four and has brought a much-needed presence up front.

Yet, the 39-year-old, who is now the all-time top scorer in ACL history, is perhaps more the finishing touch to a work in progress that was first put in motion years ago.

Stalwarts such as Huang Yang and Dani Cancela have been at the club since 2011 and, having gone through years toiling at the AFC Cup level, remain key figures, but the Kitchee hierarchy have not been afraid to forego sentiment for the sake of progress.

It was midway through 2018 -- after the failure of their previous ACL appearance -- when the club made what could not have been an easy decision to part ways with iconic duo Lam Ka Wai and Lo Kwan Yee, both of whom had served Kitchee with distinction for over a decade.

In their place, prospects like Cheng Chin Lung and Law Tsz Chun were given opportunities to establish themselves in the first team, and the emphasis on youth has only continued with the more recent emergence of Shinichi Chan, Ngan Cheuk Pan and Seb Buddle.

Kitchee have also benefitted from the Hong Kong national team's naturalisation of foreign players, meaning that in addition to their import quota quartet of Damjanovic, Park Jun-heong, Cleiton and Raul Baena, they can also call upon Cancela, Helio, Roberto, Paulo Cesar and Alex Akande as players registered as locals.

Plenty of stars may seem to have aligned for Kitchee to be on the verge of making history for Hong Kong football.

In truth, their quest to make their mark in the AFC Champions League has been one that has been many years in the making.