Cambodian football heavyweights Phnom Penh Crown successfully defended the Samdech Hun Sen Cup edging out fellow Casino-endorsed side Naga Corp 1-0 Saturday at Olympic Stadium
Phnom Penh Crown manager Makara Be (front, green shirt) and goal-scrorer Keo Sokngorn (front centre) lift the Samdech Hun Sen Cup trophy while Oscar Mpoko (front left) flaunts the winners’ cheque for 60 million riels (US$14,640) with other teammates Saturday at Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh.
THOUSANDS of fans at Olympic Stadium witnessed local favourites Phnom Penh Crown defeat Naga Corp Saturday in a nail-biting 1-0 victory in the Samdech Hun Sen Cup final.
Security was ramped up a notch or 10 at the Olympic Stadium for the visit of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and President of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Mohammed bin Hammam. Access to the main stand was restricted, forcing many fans to brave the unshaded sides of the stadium, which gave the ground a fuller and more colourful atmosphere. The central section of the main stand was awash with a sea of navy blue berets belonging to members of the military police, while supporters of the competing teams were also segregated; the red of Phnom Penh Crown on one side and and the white of Naga Corp on the other.
The game kicked off before the two dignitaries had arrived. They were presumably stuck in traffic while their decorated seats in the royal box remained empty during the first half.
A rousing crowd did their best to encourage the teams with fervent drumming and clapping in the opening minutes and were nearly rewarded when Crown's winger and national team star Chan Rithy found space just outside the area to shoot at goal. The strike had enough venom to trouble Naga keeper Choam Veasna into spilling, but fortunately a defender was at hand to clear.
Naga struck back with Mohamadou Ousmanou latching on to a loose ball that bubbled invitingly outside the box, but his left foot volley trailed just past the far post.
In the 15th minute, Naga's Meas Channa supplied a telling cross from a freekick on the left, but with white shirts queuing up to pull the trigger, Sun Sovannarith wasted the chance with a header over the bar.
Momentum was swinging from one team to the other, with both sets of players showing fighting spirit, tackling hard and leaving feet in the challenge. Naga captain Oum Thavirak especially was doing a sterling job patrolling the defence while keeping Crown's striker Jean Roger Lappe Lappe quiet with a commanding presence and clever positioning.
Chan Rithy was looking dangerous on the Crown left wing, making good progression in the final third, but was competently shut down by the Naga backline.
Naga's Sun Sovannarith was causing mischief in the middle of the park, often stealing the and ball befoe running through players with his quick feet. However, neither team could muster the extra effort to open the scoring and the half ended goalless.
Deputy Prime Minister Sok An (left) and AFC President Mohammed bin Hammam watch the drama unfold Sunday.
Teams received their obligatory morale-boosting rants from managers during the interval and emerged with renewed vigour for the second period. Just after the restart, a smart cross from the right by Crown's Oscar Mpoko found an unmarked Srey Veasna, whose glaring miss was almost ignored by fans in the main stand applauding the belated arrival of Sok An and Mohammed bin Hammam.
Moments later, an altercation in the midfield following a strong challenge brought the teams together for a shoving match, but the hostility was quickly diffused.
With pressure mounting from a series of well-worked Crown attacks, the deadlock was eventually broken. Confusion in the Naga defence allowed a corner kick to ricochet around the area before falling at the feet of Crown substitute Keo Sokngorn, who calmly passed the ball into the right corner and left Naga defenders looking around desperately for someone to blame.
With Naga pushing hard to answer back, defensive errors crept in, including a weak backheader from Chek Sokhom that caused panic for Choam Veasna, who barely scrambled the ball clear from the lurking Crown forward Lappe Lappe.
Meas Channa for Naga was having an outstanding game on the right flank, curling in a host of crosses that colleagues failed to convert.
Lappe Lappe - so good they named him twice - showed tremendous skill and strength to muscle his way to the byline. His pullback was played high to the head of Keo
Sokngorn who was diving away from goal and couldnt transmit the necessary power to beat the Naga keeper.
Naga kept up the pusuit of an equaliser. A vicious attempted cross from Meas Channa looked to be heading for the top corner before Crown keeper Peng Bunchay expertly tipped the ball onto the bar.
Oum Thavirak was maintaining his enforcer role at the Naga back as he made several heavy-handed tackles and blocks on Crown forwards, and was fortunate not to get booked for a scything challenge from behind on Oscar Mpoko.
Tension filled the stands for the dying minutes. Crown manager Makara came charging from the bench, incensed by the referee's decision to award a foul on Naga's Sun Sovannarith by Chan Rithy, with Ek Sovannara sent off for the ensuing dissent as he was awarded a second yellow card.
Naga went all out to capitalise on their man advantage in the four minutes of injury time, but Crown defended magnificently to the end.
When the final whistle blew, Naga players fell to their knees in dismay while the Crown players whooped and cheered, taking off their shirts to swing around their heads while chanting "Ole Ole Ole Ole!" in a circling huddle.
After the game, Crown manager Makara Be was delighted with his team's "fantastic" performance but voiced his disapproval with the referee's apparent bias towards Naga.
"They [Naga] played without the ball, they kicked without the ball," he said. "But no yellow cards, nothing.
"Today we played against the referee. We played 11 against 15. Every supporter could see [that]."
When asked to single out a player from his team that deserved man of the match,
Makara Be said: "Everybody is important for us. But Keo Sokngan is just back from injury and he got the goal for us today."
Questions were raised as to why Crown keeper Oum Thavirak was not awarded the best goalkeeper trophy and a cash prize of 1 million riels (US$243) after keeping a clean sheet throught the competition. "I don't know why," said Makara Be. "We didn't concede any goals, but my keeper didn't get the trophy for best keeper. We don't know what happened."
The prize was instead awarded to Hem Simay of Build Bright University.
The Crown boss also had praise for his defensive quartet. "I think all four of our back players should be in the national team, but only two [have been selected]."
Crown have now consolidated their place on top of the Cambodian football pecking order, but Makara Be was hesitant to get complacent. "We don't think we are the best team in Cambodia. We still have to do a lot," he said, noting that his team would have to prepare for the upcoming Singapore Cup at the end of April and the AFC President's Cup in May.
The Crown manager also hinted that star winger Chan Rithy would be heading for Thailand next year to play in the Thai football league.
Naga manager Michael Thachnan remained upbeat saying, "we lost, but I don't feel very bad".
"I think my players played very well," he said. "We had a few chances in the first half but we couldn't capitalise.
"Sometimes you need luck to win the game. You try your hardest - train hard and all that. You saw us kicking right in front of goal, three, four, five times but it always touched something."
Thachnan strongly dismissed the Crown manager's allegations that the referee favoured the Naga players.
"The referee didn't do a good job, but to say somehow the referee supports one side, that's bullshit. We don't talk like that. A referee is a referee. If he's not a good referee, that's it. There's nothing he gets from me, there's nothing I get from him."
On surveying the dejected looks on his players' faces, Thachnan offered to "bring them back up".
"We will rest for a few days. Maybe I will take my team to the beach - kick back and don't think about anything."
However, the Naga boss said they would soon return to training. "Even though we lost today, i think we will be stronger in the league," he declared.
Navy-affiliated team Phuchoung Neak were awarded the fair play trophy with an accompanying check for 5 million riels (US$1,223) and Ranger FC striker Kuoch Sokumphiak took home the Golden Boot award and 1 million riels for top scorer in the competition with 15 goals.
After the obligatory closing speech from Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, the top three placing assembled to collect winners medals. Third-placed Preah Khan Reach received medals and their check for 20 million riels followed by runners' up Naga Corp who were decorated by AFC President Mohammed bin Hammam and given a check for 40 million riels.
Finally, members of the victorious Phnom Penh Crown team took to the stage to claim their winners' medals from Sok An and a presentation cheque denoting the 60 million riels cash prize.
All photos by Nick Sells (www.nicksellsphotography.com)