The odds on National Defence Ministry making it all the way to the championship round of the Metfone C-League through the playoffs this year after their topsy-turvy league campaign would, even at the start of this month, have been too big for even the most ardent of supporters to lay on an outside bet.
Yet Army have battled over the past few weeks to set up a title fight with Boeung Ket this evening at 6pm at Olympic Stadium to give themselves a chance to avenge last year’s heartbreak, when the Blue Dragon beat them to the ultimate prize by just one point in a format where the league winners were crowned champions.
It was the cruellest way of depriving Army their first taste of league success since the competition began in its current format in 2005.
The only championship win they had until then was back in 1993, back when the league was more of a contest among establishment teams rather than the structured Cambodian Premier League it is today.
The Hun Sen Cup has been a happier hunting ground for the Army
outfit, with last year’s victory in a nerve-jangling penalty shootout against Preah Khan Reach Svay Rieng joining their success in 2010 and a runners-up medal in 2013.
Boeung Ket are the league winners again this year, but the championship will only be theirs if they get past a much-changed Army, who are on course for a fairytale ending to the season after edging out NagaWorld on penalties in the first playoff and then humbling Svay Rieng on their own turf in the next.
With Wednesday night’s defeat by top-flight newcomers Electricite du Cambodge in the Cup third-place playoff causing some concern, caretaker coach Hav Socheat will be glad to see the return of Maycon Calijuri alongside Nigerian imports Esoh Omogba and Samuel Ajayi to bolster the side for Saturday’s grand final against a side operating at a high level of self-assurance and competence.
Boeung Ket’s Brazilian striker Calijuri has been hitting the back of the net regularly for the side and is now well poised to take home the golden boot with 21 goals so far this season.
But for Boeung Ket, preventing Army’s much feared North Korean marauders Cho Myong-ho and Kim Kyong-hun springing surprises will be just as important as breaking down Army’s robust and often rugged style of defending.
It is a big game for interim coach Socheat, who took over in May, nearly halfway through the league cycle, from Liverpool-born Australian coach John McGlynn, who lasted four months in the job after replacing former national coach Prak Sovanara in early January this year.
Having seen his Hun Sen Cup hopes dashed by Naga last week in the semifinal defeat and then missing out on a third-place finish to league newcomers EdC, this will be Socheat’s last chance to end the season with success.
Army were boosted by a short trip to a mini tournament in China last month. As the team camp put it, the players not only felt invigorated after the experience, but it also strengthened their resolve to face the harder tests that were to lie ahead when they returned home to complete the domestic season.
Now they are just one hurdle away from their dream of winning the Metfone C-League for the first time.