Photo by: ANDY BROUWER
National team players Teab Vathanak (left) and Keo Sokngorn scored goals for Cambodia in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifier match Tuesday against Macau.
IN a match that Cambodia's national coach Prak Sovannara had expected his team to win comfortably, his players failed to find their goal-scoring form, though they did record their first win of the AFC Challenge Cup Group A qualifying competition Tuesday.
And in the scramble for qualification places, their shyness in front of goal in this match may not be as damaging as at first glance. With the group winners getting automatic qualification, the last qualifying place for next year's finals will go to the best-ranked of the runners-up in the four groups, and results against the lowest-placed team in the group may not count. The bottom line is that qualification is still up for grabs for all three teams, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Myanmar and tonight's final group games will settle the issue.
The national team head coach rang the changes for this their second game of the competition, including Om Thavrak, Khoun Laboravy and Keo Sokngorn from the start, with Pok Chanthan sidelined through injury and regular striker Kuoch Sokumpheak amongst the substitutes. With the coach's instructions to attack their opponents from the first whistle, Cambodia began with a flourish and took a 12th minute lead when Teab Vathanak controlled a pass from Khim Borey and scored with a low drive into the corner. So far so good.
With Cambodia dominating possession, Prak Sovannara made two first-half substitutions, bringing on San Narith and Kuoch Sokumpheak to add to his attacking options, but it was his team's inability to convert a hatful of goal-scoring chances that left them with just a one goal half-time lead. The coach was not happy.
"We began well, with perfect tactics and strategy and had about 80 percent of the play, creating at least six golden opportunities to score. I also made two changes in my team to give us even more attacking options. But my players lost concentration at the vital moment and we lost the opportunity to add to our early goal,' he said.
For the second half, and with Macau visibly tiring in the scorching 39 degree-Celsius afternoon heat, Sovannara encouraged his team to put on even more pressure in the final third. This paid off when Keo Sokngorn rewarded the coach's decision to include him from the start, with a tap-in after a corner had struck the woodwork on 66 minutes. It was all Cambodia again, as they kept possession and pushed forward but with Macau getting players behind the ball and frustrating their opponents it was the group underdogs who grabbed a surprise consolation goal with 15 minutes remaining. In their only serious attack of the game, a freekick into a crowded penalty area fell to Che Chi Man and he bundled the ball in past an otherwise redundant Samreth Seiha in the Cambodia goal.
While celebrating their 2-1 success, Prak Sovannara had expected more goals from his team.
"Sometimes you need a bit of luck in front of goal, and today we didn't have any. We created so many good chances but only took two of them. My team gave a good performance in terms of possession of the ball and taking the game to the opponents, but we lost concentration at vital times and often, we were too hungry to score and missed the opportunity.
"In the second half, Macau defended in numbers and gave us fewer chances and their goal came from one silly mistake. We were definitely better than in our first game, but had there been more than a day's gap in between matches, I think we would've performed even better."
Now all eyes turn to tonight's final group matches. Cambodia will meet group leaders Myanmar (kickoff at 4:30pm), who already have six points after defeating hosts Bangladesh 2-1 Tuesday. Myanmar need a point to secure the group title, whilst Cambodia need to win to keep alive their hopes of qualification. In the other game, Bangladesh take on bottom team Macau (kickoff at 7pm) and they too need a win to push their claims for a place in the finals. It all adds up to an intriguing last day of Group A at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka.