Spirits are high, expectations modest. But, like any coach, Prak Sovannara is not without performance anxiety as Cambodia prepare for a tough Group E opener against Turkmenistan in the AFC Challenge Cup
qualifier tomorrow at Manila’s Rizal Memorial Stadium.
The national team’s head coach trimmed the size of the squad to 22 players on Tuesday, dropping Naga Corp clubmates Chin Chum and Sun Sovannarithy, along with Khuon Laboravy of Preah Khan Reach.
Lack of absolute fitness was clearly a common thread that kept these players out.
Before flying to the Philippine capital yesterday morning, Sovannara expressed cautious optimism that his side would put on a reasonably good show, but made it abundantly clear that tackling Turkmenistan and the hosts back to back presented a huge challenge.
He sees the game against Brunei as a must-win for his team.
“We all know how strong Turkmenistan is. We can feel some comfort from the fact that we drew goalless at home against the Philippines last year. We need to at least hold that form or go one better,” Sovannara told the Post.
“In a format like this, not only is every game important, but every goal scored or prevented will be crucial.”
Cambodia play Turkmenistan, runners-up to North Korea in the previous cycle, at 3:30pm Cambodian time tomorrow.
At 6:30pm on Sunday, Cambodia face the Philippines.
They will wind up their three-match campaign against Brunei on Tuesday.
All group winners, along with the two best runners-up, will go through to the AFC Challenge Cup proper, to be played next March in the Maldives, who as hosts will take one of the eight spots.
Myanmar (Group A), Afghanistan (Group C) and Palestine (Group D) secured their qualification places on March 6. The winner of Group B, a toss-up between Tajikistan and hosts Kyrgyzstan, will be decided today.
The race for two best runners-up spots is also hotting up, with goal difference being the crucial deciding factor. Bangladesh, with +5, and India, with +4, are ahead of the rest, but the Group B and E outcomes could throw up a surprise.
But for an odd spark here or a flash there, it has been a gloomy three years for Cambodian football in regional competitions, including an SEA Games snub under South Korean Lee Tae Hoon’s watch in Indonesia.
Sovannara is back for his second stint at the helm of national affairs. His first, in 2009, brought some cheer when Cambodia qualified for the Suzuki Cup finals.
The mood in the Cambodian locker room had never been so upbeat after the 3-1 victory in an internat-ional friendly two weeks ago over a Malaysian U23 squad gearing up to defend their SEA Games supremacy this December.
Experience runs deep enough in the side through the likes of Kouch Sokumpheak, Kim Borey, Chhin Chhoeun, Ting Tieny and a few others, while developing talent is blending well enough to give the team a balanced look.
If the level of self-belief in the team is anything to go by, Sovannara’s men can be reasonably expected to put up a worthy fight.
For a football-mad country fed up with frequent eliminations, an elevation would do the world of good.
Cambodia’s AFC Challenge Cup squad –
Goalkeepers: Peng Bunchay (Boeung Ket); Samreth Seiha (Crown); Sou Yaty (MND) Defenders: Touch Pancharong (Boeung Ket); Say Piseth (Police); Lay Raksmey (PKR); Sok Rithy (PKR); Om Thavrak (Naga); Khek Khemarin (MND); Tieng Tiny (Naga)
Mid-fielders: Chhin Chhoeun (MND); San Narith (Naga); Teab Vathanak (Naga); Sun Sophana (Naga); Sos Suhana (Crown); Hoy Phallin (PKR); Prak Mony Udom (PKR); Sok Chanrasmey (PKR); Soun Veasna (PKR); Chan Vathanaka (Boeung Ket);
Forwards: Kouch Sokumpheak (Crown); Khim Borey (Crown)