Male, The Maldives
The Maldives showed why experience can count double, or rather quadruple, with a 4-0 rout of visitors Cambodia on Monday night in their opening group match of the AFC Challenge Cup. The hosts fielded the veteran trio of striker Ibrahim Fazeel, defender Abdul Ghani Assad and goalkeeper Imran Mohamed, all of which had played against the Kingdom a decade ago.
The Maldives eased into the comfort zone within barely a minute of Chinese referee Zhao Liang blowing his whistle at the Rasmee Dhadu Stadium. Mukhthaar Naseer, who scored the winning goal against India in the 2008 SAFF Championship, sent the home fans in early delirium as his rocket from the right-hand byline blasted through Cambodian keeper Ouk Mich’s hands and into the far side netting.
Naseer, Fazeel and skipper Ashfaq Ali then piled the pressure on tourists, carving out numerous gilt-edged chances. In the 41st minute, Naseer drew across two defenders and hit a square pass to his skunk-haired skipper, who duly knocked it into an unguarded right corner to double their lead heading into the break.
Cambodia’s best chance of the first half fell to 2011 Samdech Hun Sen Cup Golden Boot winner Khoun Laboravy. Prak Mony Udom set up the prolific striker, but Laboravy’s fumbled attempt proved no problem for Maldivian stopper Mohamed.
Sam El Nasa, the only current Cambodian player to have faced the Maldives three times, was replaced by Sok Pheng in the last minute of the first period.
For the first 15 minutes after the restart, Cambodia enjoyed the majority of possession. Chhun Sothearath was presented with space to break into the penalty area, but Maldivian defender Akram Abdull Gani came across well to thwart the attack.
Cambodian defenders Lay Rasmey, Tieng Tiny, Say Piseth and Touch Panhcharong were finding it difficult to subdue the
rampaging Ashfaq, whose speed and movement has earned him hero status in his homeland.
Experienced Chan Rithy came on for the final quarter-of-an-hour, but his presence alongside Kouch Sokumpheak had little impact for the travellers. Sun Sopanha’s corner kicks were consistently cleared by the Maldivian defence.
With six minutes of regulation left on the clock, a poor throw out by Ouk Mich was snapped up by Qasim Shamweel who played through Ashfaq to notch his second of the night. Four minutes later, and captain fantastic claimed his hat-trick with another well worked move to put the game to bed.
In the post-match press conference, Cambodian coach Lee Tae Hoon admitted to being outclassed by the home side. “They are too good. With their home crowd, they made it very difficult for our players,” he said.
“It’s great for us to play against the good team – it’s a good experience for the players. [There is] nothing to blame on my boys, they worked very hard.”
The Maldives coach Diego Cruciani was clearly delighted with the result. “All the credit goes to the players because I had just three practice sessions with them,” he said.
Cambodia now face inaugural AFC Challenge Cup champions Tajikistan tonight at 11pm Cambodian time, in their first ever competitive meeting. Tajikistan beat Kyrgyzstan 1-0 in Monday’s early match thanks to an 88th minute’s own goal by Kyrgyzstan captain Sydykov Ruslan.
Hosts the Maldives, which currently lead group C, will play Kyrgyzstan in today’s first match at 6pm Cambodian time.
The Cambodian squad voiced their dissatisfaction with the late night scheduling of their fixtures, with all three of their group games kicking off at 9pm in Male. “We have never played at 9pm, so it was difficult for us,” said one player.