The stage is set for another classic clash of the casino-backed sides when highly motivated Naga Corp lock horns with their fiercest rivals Phnom Penh Crown in the Super 4 playoff semifinal on Sunday.
The contest assumes gladiatorial proportions after what transpired in an identical match-up last year. Crown were on the verge of the title after topping the league season with consumate ease, only to be knocked flat by the fourth-placed Naga Corp in a bizzare turnaround.
This time out the roles are reversed, with Crown seething for a revenge even as Naga prepare to stonewall their title defence.
In his first season as Naga Corp coach, richly experienced Prak Sovannara has set a one-word mission for this year: “Consolidation”.
“I want the team to replicate what we did last season,” said the former Preah Khan Reach and national team tactician during a training session on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on Tuesday. “If you do not aim for things, you have no chance.”
Prak Sovannara added that his team will go into Sunday’s semifinal “in a confident and positive frame of mind”.
“Topping the league was a big psychological plus. I have some short-term concerns over defence, but a challenge for any side is to overcome difficulties and rise to the occasion, and I feel my team is up to the task,” he said.
The coach revealed their shots-to-goal ratio had remained healthy during the league phase, which reflected well on their strike force, although he had found the fullback areas to be under-staffed and midfield a lot less sharper in some matches.
“[We’re] long on experience but comparatively short on youth power,” said Sovannara. “I think we have a balanced side. Yes, we may have players who are by no means young but they are capable and effective as the results show”
The coach also maintained he held a “very healthy respect for Phnom Penh Crown”.
“They are a team of talented individuals who can deal with any opposition, but I am not prepared to concede on the evidence of our last meeting, which we lost [4-0]. We can do a lot better than that, I am pretty sure.”
For Crown manager Be Makara, it had been a testing past two weeks. He was clearly enraged by the officiating standards during his team’s 3-1 loss to Preah Khan Reach last Saturday, which banished the side to a fourth- place finish, but has decided not to linger on the past.
“I am looking forward to a strong performance. Ours is a highly driven unit, and our rivals know that we do not concede ground that easily. We are determined to turn things around,” he said, after taking his players on a short tour of warm-up games and training sessions near the Vietnam border.
“I am looking for some of our midfielders to free the forwards more often. I have a pair of good strikers in [Uche Prince] Justine and Olisa [Onyemerea]. We are chasing the ball and closing down but not making good scoring opportunities that had come our way as frequently as we should have.”
Be Makara also noted his apprehension over goalkeeping. “We are sorting out this problem with our goalkeeping coach, and beefing up our defence is another area of priority. Overall, I feel we are ready to remedy most of our league failings and produce a tangible result,” he said.