It is the start of an exciting phase for Cambodian football as key changes in style, attitude and character ushered in by Japanese maestro Keisuke Honda and his Argentine friend and coach Felix Gonzalez will be put to competitive test for the first time when the Kingdom takes on Malaysia in their Group A Opener of the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup home tie at Olympic Stadium on Thursday evening.
The much anticipated clash between these familiar regional foes, expected to attract a packed stadium, is set for a 6:30pm kick-off.
It is also the dawn of a new era for the visitors as Tan Chang Hoe takes charge of the team as head coach with Malaysia seeking their second title since winning the 2010 edition and finishing runners-up in 1996 and 2014.
Coach Gonzalez made it plain at a joint news conference with his Malaysian counterpart that Honda, who is currently playing for Melbourne Victory in Australia, will not be present for the game but is almost certain to be involved as the tournament moves on.
“Honda has been communicating with us and he is very much aware of what goes on. The team has been working hard for nearly a month. We have worked out a new approach and style. We have learnt some important lessons from our 3-1 defeat by Malaysia in a friendly and I am confident the team will do well,” he said.
About the composition of the 23-member squad in relation to the dropping of three promising youngsters, Gonzalez said the selection was based on the best interest of the team and also the choices were decided upon through his consultations with the squad. “It was between me and the players and the criteria, as all agreed, was to pick the best,” he added.
Describing Malaysia as one of the strong contenders in a group that includes Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos, the coach was cautiously optimistic that the team would perform well.
For his part, Tang Chang Hoe said he had healthy respect for Cambodia’s courage but was every bit confident that his team would deliver a positive result.
“This side is in good shape and high spirits and has a different outlook from the one that won the friendly. We have a better balanced team and the different components of the team have come together well, [with] new players blending well with the more established and experienced ones,” he said.
While the stakes are high on the personal front for the new Malaysian coach in his first big game, for the high profile Cambodian coaching duo of Gonzalez and Honda, it is a great opportunity to show the tens of thousands of fans who will turn up that Cambodian football future is in safe hands.