Six-time champions Phnom Penh Crown today open the new Metfone C-League season and launch their defence of the title, which they won in a nail-biting penalty shootout against NagaWorld last December.
The 2016 season opener will kick off at 6pm against Cambodian Tiger at the RSN Stadium this evening.
This will be the first serious competitive test for Crown’s newly appointed head coach Oriol Mohedano of Spain, who took over earlier in the year from Sam Schweingruber, who recorded his second successive league triumph before stepping aside in the wake of a motorcycle accident two months ago.
Following his full recovery and successful rehabilitation in Switzerland, Schweingruber has now been elevated to the position of team manager at the club.
The champions have had weeks of pre-season preparation, with a 1-1 draw with Boeung Ket Angkor in a charity friendly earlier this month. A solid result against one of the title favourites.
A considerable number of player transfers have been completed among the major clubs this season, but two standouts from Crown’s perspective are defender Odion Obaidin and striker Bisan George, both of whom have chosen to ply their trade elsewhere in the region.
Crown have brought in talented George Kelechi from Asia Europe United to bolster their strikeforce, and they are better placed than most teams to find a suitable AFC player to make up the four-player foreign component allowed by the league.
This could prove a difficult task for most of the other teams, who may have difficulty finding the mandatory number of AFC players.
The Tigers have bitter memories of their previous encounter with Crown, having been squarely beaten 6-2 on aggregate in the two-leg semi-final playoffs, though the team’s overall performance was a marked improvement on the previous year.
The Tigers have lost the services of their 19-goal hero Privat Mbarga to NagaWorld this season. They hope 25-year-old Japanese import Tomoki Muramatsu will be good enough to fill his shoes.
Naga out to go one better
Two previous Hun Sen Cup winners who have struggled to make their mark in the league will lock horns at the Olympic Stadium at 3.30pm on Saturday.
Against all odds and expectations, National Police won the Cup in 2014, and they have been aiming to build on that momentum since but have so far failed to break into the top echelons of the league.
The fortunes of Ministry of National Defence have been similar, with the Armymen’s most notable success since then being victory in the cup nearly six years ago.
Regarded as one of the most robust outfits in the league, they have often blown hot and cold, mixing up form with some brilliant wins, like the one against Crown last season, and some inexplicable defeats.
The most exciting element for the Army outfit this season will be the presence of North Korean raider Choe Myong-ho, who has already shown his might in a friendly.
The unkindest cut of all for NagaWorld coach Meas Channa in his first season was the loss of both the Hun Sen Cup and the league at the final hurdle.
As a player, Channa was part of NagaWorld’s last league triumph in 2009, a feat he almost achieved as coach when his side lost on penalties to Crown.
The two-time champions have gone in for some strong rebuilding of the side, though Guinean striker Barry Lelouma has left the side to try his luck in Thailand.
Dream season for Vathanaka
NagaWorld have roped in Cameroonian forward Privat Mbarga and Nigerian Rasheed Omokafe, with Anderson Zogbe of Ivory Coast returning to the side. Former Svay Rieng midfielder Tum Saray and Boeung Ket’s Sok Pheng will also be in the Naga roster, along with South Korean Park Yong-jun.
NagaWorld will begin their quest for the title against Western Phnom Penh in a twilight fixture at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday.
Hun Sen Cup holders Svay Rieng will start the season hoping to replicate their league win in 2013, albeit in a new identity as Preah Khan Reach Svay Rieng.
They will host CMAC in their opening game at the Provincial Stadium, beginning at 6pm on Sunday.
The final game of the extended weekend will involve Toyota Mekong Club Championship finalists Boeung Ket Angkor and Asia Europe United at the Olympic Stadium.
After a spotless league phase, Boeung Ket stumbled badly in the semi-final play-offs against NagaWorld. Runners-up twice after their maiden triumph in 2012, Boeung Ket will be keen to regain the league supremacy.
Chan Vathanaka had a dream season having amassed around 60 goals in all competitions during the year and 37 in the league itself to take the Golden Boot award.
Joining the Boeung Ket frontline this season will be Teab Vathanak, who has left NagaWorld.