THE 2004 and 2007 champions surprised everyone including themselves when they posted an enterprising 2-0 win over reigning champion Phnom Penh Crown in the playoff semifinals. Finishing fourth in the regular season, they are now favourites to go on to win their third title. At one time, their inconsistency saw Spark FC and Build Bright United almost snatch the coveted Super 4 spot from them, but their experience at the top level kept them in it.
Naga’s attacking might during the season was equaled only by Crown, with both teams netting an impressive 44 goals from their 18 games. Interestingly, Naga’s only loss in the last five games has come against their finals opponents Saturday.
The man in charge
Manager Michael Thachnen has brought a bit more steel to the Naga side, even though they are not quite as expansive or exciting to watch as they were during their triumphant 2007 season. “I want to win again,” stated the former Naga midfielder. “I won as a player in 2004, and as a coach in 2007, so it feels good to have the chance once more to be champions.
“After we won the league in 2007, we lost many key players to injury in 2008. Thus, we didn’t perform well enough,” continued Thachnen. “But this season we were determined to do well. At some points, we were not very consistent, but our goal was to qualify for the Super 4 and then move on from there, which we have done.”
Naga earned their title shot
Despite Phnom Penh Crown and Preah Khan Reach’s grumbles about the format of the 2009 CPL season, Naga feel they have fully earned the right to play for the championship. “The decision to play the Super 4 [playoffs] to determine the league champions is welcomed, and we all knew before-hand,” Thachnen remarked. “We approached every game with the Super 4 in mind, and we tried to raise our players’ spirit to meet the demand of playing very important matches, so we deserved to be where we are. It’s wrong to say we are going through the back door.”
Nigerian midfielder Friday Nwakuna echoed his manager’s sentiments. “We want to show everyone that it’s all about being champions, and not whether we were fourth in the regular season,” he said.
Compatriot and teammate Sunday Okonkwo added: “Nobody gave Naga a chance, but eventually, we have made it to the final, and surely we will be going out to win to prove them wrong.”
“We want to win,” asserted Naga winger Meas Channa after training Tuesday. “We know it’s going to be difficult, but we will do our best to win.”
“We respect Khemara, but we are not afraid of them,” added striker Chin Chum. “We want to win the cup for ourselves, and so we will be going all out.”
For Friday Nwakuna, who has yet to taste CPL success after playing with Lion Squad in 2007 and Khemara in 2008, Saturday has extra significance. “I am more than motivated to play to win,” he declared. “I have some points to prove to Khemara. I want to prove to them that Naga is better, considering the way I was treated when I played for Khemara.”
Naga Corp’s Cambodian striker Chin Chum (foreground) says his team respects Khemara Keila, “but we are not afraid of them”.
Oyewole is one to watch
Nigerian-born Yemi Oyewole has been a revelation this season, dominating numerous games with good tackling, inch-perfect passes and wonder goals. “My foreign players have been very helpful all season, and Yemi is obviously our top player irrespective that he is still very young,” noted Thachnen. “When the game is very tight, he always looks to find openings. He is not scared. He has something which is very difficult to give to players. No matter how big the game is, he takes the ball and takes people on.”
Thachnen talks tactics
“With the African trio [Oyewole, Nwakuna and Sunday Okonkwo] in good form, I will be looking on to blend them with my local players,” stated the Naga boss. “With Meas Channa and Chin Chum operating from the wings, bringing in their deadly crosses, and Sunday in the attack, Yemi and Friday will be shielding the defense and springing the passes. I think we can do a good job in the final.”
“I know that Khemara defence play with lots of power and passion,” added 22-year-old Okonkwo, who is Naga’s top scorer with 15 goals. “But I am sure of breaking their defence with my pace and technique.”
Defender Pho Sophy is excited to be playing in the final and will be looking forward to shutting out the Khemara attacking duo of Kuoch Sokumpheak and Nelson Oladiji. “I have watched them play and know what to do to keep them quiet,” he boasted.
However, manager Thachnen is weary of Khemara’s style of play. “From my point of view, we are a team with tactics and techniques,” he opined. “But Khemara play with more passion, which is their strength, and they could be deadly.”
Photos by Nick Sells (www.nicksellsphotography.com)