Regional minnows Cambodia and Laos chase their distant 2014 FIFA World Cup dream berths, squaring off at 3pm today at Olympic Stadium in the first of their two legs in the Asian Group qualifiers.
For Cambodian national team head coach Lee Tae Hoon’s squad, the home fixture represents their biggest international challenge since they lost 1-0 and 4-1 to Turkmenistan at the same stage in the 2007 cycle for the 2010 edition in South Africa.
Three members of the current squad – Kouch Sokumpheak, Sam El Nasa and Tieng Tiny – figured in the Kingdom’s debut, with El Nasa scoring their solitary away goal.
“Nothing comes bigger than this for Cambodian football, and we need to pool all our resources to do well in this needle match,” South Korea-born Lee Tae Hoon told the Post yesterday.
In their first appearance at the 2003 qualification round, Laos lost to Sri Lanka 3-0 after holding them to a goalless draw at home. On paper, the two sides are so evenly matched in strength and FIFA ranking that there is little to choose between them.
Laos are currently ranked 174th to Cambodia’s 176th and the form line between the two sides shows a goalless draw in their last October meeting at the Suzuki Cup qualifiers in Vientiane, where Cambodia were nosed out of contention on goal difference after a tie on points with the Philippines and Laos.
As Lee Tae Hoon pointed out, and his Laotian counterpart, Hans-Peter Schaller of Austria, may well agree, form on the day is what counts and how well the ball rolls for either of them.
The national coach is quite pleased with the preparations, though he has his own concerns about the strength of the back line.
One piece of good news for the hosts is the absence of injury worries, a fact confirmed by team manager Van Ly at a media conference yesterday.
In two warm-up games, Cambodia managed to beat a Malaysian U23 team 1-0 and followed it up with a convincing 5-1 victory over a second-tier club side from neighbouring Vietnam.
Coach Lee, however, refuses to lay store by these results, indicating that those friendlies merely served to show how well the team members were physically and how well they were coping with training.
A visiting side from China’s Kunming University proved no match for Laos in two friendlies last month.
Laos sliced through the students 5-0 and 6-0, but against Chonburi FC – a much tougher side who currently lie second in the Thai Premier League – the Laotians capitulated 5-0.
Schaller is also unwilling to read too much into the friendly outcomes, contending that today’s clash is a different ball game altogether.
“It is not about how young or old the players are. It is all about how good or bad they are,” he said at yesterday’s press conference.
“Like Cambodia, we have a young, developing team. There are players who are playing for the first time, but I am confident that they will do their best.”
The Laos coach jokingly dismissed suggestions that his side could be under a lot more pressure than Cambodia, having to play their first match away.
“I will tell you about this after the match tomorrow,” Schaller said, adding that he had no reason to believe the order of fixtures really mattered.
As well as substantial cross-border bragging rights, the contest assumes added significance as both nations are looking to clear the first hurdle on the road to the World Cup finals for the very first time.
Tickets for today’s game are priced at 4,000 riels for a seat in the main stand or 1,000 riels for a place in the outside stands.
Red T-shirts depicting the Cambodian national flag have been produced by the Football Federation of Cambodia and will be on sale outside the stadium for 15,000 riels each.
That price will include entry to the main grandstand.
ADDITIONONAL REPORTING BY UNG CHAMROEUN