It was a tragic case of a slip between the cup and the lip for Cambodia as the Philippines and hosts Laos shut the Kingdom out of the Suzuki Cup qualifiers at the National Sports Complex in Vientiane in a three-way tie on better goal difference to grab the two slots on offer for the final round of the competition in December.
Cambodia’s sights were clearly set on Laos after a fighting goal-less draw against the Philippines left both sides level on five points each.
But the hosts, well aware of their target, reached it with gusto against tail-enders Timor-Leste, thrashing the novices 6-1 to ensure that they would send Cambodia packing, though only by a nose.
The Kingdom’s silent wish for an upset of sorts gradually turned into despair with every goal Laos struck.
There were murmurs of discontent in Cambodian football circles that these two fixtures should have been played simultaneously for the sake of fairness and to totally eliminate a possibility of a manipulative element.
A team official who wished not to be named said no one was doubting the integrity of the results, but that fair play in circumstances like these demanded that the two matches be played at the same time, as is the practice in other parts of the world.
The host’s near-perfect finish catapulted them to the top of the group ahead of the Philippines.
Laos will now join Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia in Group A, while the Philippines enter Group B alongside Vietnam, Singapore and Myanmar.
Cambodia produced a stout-hearted performance to pull off a goalless draw against the Philippines’ formidable force, an effort that kept their qualification chances alive – though only by a long shot.
The Philippines, ironically, edged out by Cambodia two years ago on a quirky ‘more goals scored’ rule when both had a plus-one goal difference, had their sweet revenge this time.
Carrying a healthy plus-five into the game, the goal-less draw suited their plans to perfection..
“They threw everything they had including the kitchen sink”, said Philipine head coach Simon McMenemy after the match.
“We showed that we will not go down without a fight, and that is the quality we will bring it to the final round”, the coach said, putting all rivals on a notice.
Given the significance of the contest, both sides showed aggressive intent in abundant measure.
Cambodia had several near misses. Midfielder Sun Sophana’s free kick was tipped over in the nick of time.
Striker Keo Sokgnon drove straight to the post from the left edge of the box.
A Sun Sophana shot came to grief on the cross bar midway through the first half.
On several breakaways, the trio of Ian Araneta, Philip Younghusband and his brother James were constant threats in the box.
“We played well even though we couldn’t win,” was Cambodian head coach Lee Tae Hoon’s philosophical line. “It is terribly disappointing we did not qualify, but we will develop these players for the next competition,” the South Korean said.
Lee made several adjustments throughout the game, shifting emphasis to the defence and reinforcing the back line.
The tactic paid rich dividends as a supportive defence helped Ouk Mic to a great degree, especially in the second half.
The stopper produced another bold show to thwart Filipino strikers time and again.