DEFENDING champions and current Metfone C League frontrunners Phnom Penh Crown began their quest for the AFC President’s Cup in a fashion that was efficient and fearless.
Anchored well by the playmaking brilliance of Chan Chaya, Crown proved too strong and wily for Don Bosco Sports Club, outplaying the Sri Lankan champions 3-0 in a Pool A game before a sizeable crowd at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday.
In the opening game of the pool played under a blazing midday sun, Neftchi Kochkor-Ata of Kyrgyzstan, touted as one of the top contenders, rose well above the testing conditions to get the measure of Bangladeshi champs Abhani Limited 2-0.
If there was one issue that brought all the four team’s managements and coaches on the same page, it was the scorching heat, with Abhani coach Aliakbar Pourmoslemi going to the extent of questioning the wisdom of scheduling a match at 1.30pm. All the other coaches and several team members were among those who expressed concern that the heat and humidity could adversely affect the quality of football.
With Asia’s most prestigious club championship hitting the stage in the Kingdom for the first time, the crowd response was the best seen this season, with the home crowd lustily cheering every Crown move.
So when Chan Chaya was brought down early in the game by Don Bosco captain Kumara Manju Wattala Pedige, Uzbek referee Vladislav Tsytlin had no hesitation in awarding a penalty. The grand ovation that Tieng Tiny had when he stepped up to take the spot kick turned into a roar of disappointment when he feebly pushed the ball wide, to Don Bosco’s relief.
But Crown soon recovered and Chan Chaya was again at work when he conveyed a sleek through pass to the fast advancing Kingsley Metu, who made a few quick adjustments before slotting the ball home past keeper Ajith Kumara.
The goal spurred Crown to a series of inspired raids, though all they could show for those promising moves were a couple of near misses. Initially the Sri Lankan side was clearly overawed by the occasion, having been constantly hustled around. It was a rare sight to see the Don Bosco forward line break into a counter move since they were so forcefully pinned in their own half.
It was midway through the second half that Crown picked up pace and in one sudden burst broke the back of the Don Bosco team. Kouch Sokumpheak, always a threat on the run, got going with a neat dash in to leave the backline in tatters. Within seconds of this Sokumpheak goal in the 65th minute, Chan Chaya got onto the score sheet with an equally charming goal to open up a winning lead.
The rest was a matter of time for Crown even as Don Bosco managed a few half-baked attempts. Hewage Kavidu Ishan was easily the pick of the Don Bosco forward line.
Coach Sampath Perera was candid in his admission that his side lacked the experience of playing away from home and the heat was an added discomfort.
“Back home we are not used to this kind of heat. For some of the players this is their first trip away and our league is not so strong. Four of our players who are in the national team were not released. So we missed them,” he said.
“I am going to make some changes for the next two games. I am positive we can put up a better performance,” he said after the match.
Crown’s Croatian coach Bojan Hodak said he was confident his team would deliver, even after that Tieng Tiny’s miss. “We had a good 30 minutes. Then a drop and another spell of good time,” he pointed out.
“The conditions were difficult for both sides. I am happy with the way we performed,” added the coach, who reserved special praise for the crowd.
“It was good see so much support in the stands. It is always inspiring for the players. I hope the crowd gets bigger for our next two matches,” he said.
Meanwhile, a stunning goal by Adzhiniiazov Marat created an ideal base for the Kyrgyzstan champions to take absolute control of the game. The hard-working midfielder landed a 30-yard scorcher after a seemingly innocuous move within the first 10 minutes.
The side’s prominent striker Pavlov Pavel, who lost his footing when going in for a free header minutes earlier, struck with a vengeance when he had a chance to work his way into the box. With the lead doubled, Neftchi were sitting pretty at half-time.
Working their way out of this shock, Abhani responded well with a couple of incisive moves, only to be thwarted by a strong backline.
The conditions on the pitch were so testy that referee Delvoki Strebre of Australia let the players take an unscheduled water break soon after that first Kyrgyzstan goal. Neftchi players welcomed it, though there were a few voices in the Abhani camp that opposed the break, saying it had broken the team’s stride just when they were launching themselves.
At the post-match press conference, the Abhani coach stressed this point as well. Neftch coach Dzhalilov Zakir maintained that it was a good idea to have a break and it was certainly good for both sets of players.
The Abhani coach conceded that the rival team was far fitter and stronger and adapted better to the demanding conditions than his team.
The Neftchi coach put it all down to good team-work.