Preah Khan Reach (PKR), the team backed by the Military Police, surprised everyone with a stunning start to the 2009 season, but had a fall from grace in the latter stages to allow Phnom Penh Crown to claim top spot. They will hope their complacency in the closing rounds of the CPL, which saw them lose to Super 4 semifinal opponents Khemara Keila 3-1 and Kirivong Sok Sen Chey 5-4, will not haunt them come Saturday.
PKR are the only team in the playoffs never to have won the league, and this year presents their best opportunity to date to obtain the elusive title.
PKR sealed their Super 4 place with a second-place finish with three games to spare, and technical director Prak Sovannara decided to rotate the squad in the final games to give fringe players a run out. The last two losses highlighted their lack of depth, and PKR will need to field their best team Saturday against Khemara if they stand a chance of making the finals.
"You can never be happy when you lose a game," remarked Prak Sovannara last Sunday, after his team saw a winning score turned around by Kirivong.
Despite the recent slump, the former national team coach is confident that his side can overcome Khemara Saturday, whom they beat 2-1 in their first fixture May 23. "We are not worried," declared Prak Sovannara. "Now that we are in the Super 4 we are ready for any team, and we will go for it."
"I think we can beat them [Naga]," concurred 20-year-old national team striker Khounla Boravy. "We have trained so hard, and the team spirit is high."
PKR's leading scorer Olisa Onyemerea has put aside his personal aim of becoming the league's top scorer after Nigerian compatriot Prince Justine of Spark FC claimed the prize. "I am going to concentrate on helping the team win against Khemara, and go on from there," he stated. The 23-year-old, who was second best striker last season with 15 goals for Build Bright United, found the back of the net 14 times in the 2009 regular season.
Captain Samel Nasa was, however, reserved about his teams chances going into the playoffs. "I think we have a 50-50 chance of winning the league," he opined. "Sometimes you can win and some times you can lose, but I hope we win on Saturday."
Former BBU defender Zila Seidu joined PKR at the start of the CPL season, with the opinion that they had what it takes to be league champions. The towering Nigerian was also thinking about the added benefits of winning the league. "If we win the league, the management has promised us that we will go on to play in the AFC [President's] Cup," he said. "Hopefully we will beat Khemara this Saturday, and wait for the final."
- Cambodian league champions: 2005, 2006
- Samdech Hun Sen Cup winners: 2007
- AFC President Cup: 2006 (Semifinals), 2007 (Group stage)
KHEMARA Keila, who played in this year's Samdech Hun Sen Cup as Ranger FC, previously belonged to Prince Norodom Ranariddh. They are the dark horse in the Super 4, despite having one of the best track records in Cambodia, including two league titles in 2005 and 2006. The club was founded in 1997 as simply Khemara, and the Phnom Penh side steadily grew in stature, reaching the semifinals of the 2006 AFC President's Cup.
Manager Salang Kang has been able to push the team on almost single-handedly under a tight budget, losing key players to rivals at the start of the season. Khemara consequently has the smallest squad in the CPL, sometimes having hardly any players on the bench during the regular season. Injuries to key players have limited their performances in important games, but they battled well to obtain a third-place league finish.
If talisman front man Kuoch Sokumpheak, a regular in the national team, is able to shrug off the ankle injury he sustained in the run up to the playoffs, Khemara will have a sniff at Cup glory once again. His partnership with Nigerian striker Nelson Oladiji up front has potency, with both churning out a dozen goals apiece during the regular season.
"I am still not 100 percent fit, but I hope I will be better before Saturday," Kuoch Sokumpheak said. "I want to win for my club, and other players are working hard to help us get to the final."
Eighteen-year-old Oladiji, who has often come off the bench to score this season, was relishing the challenge come Saturday. "I am looking forward to this game with confidence, because the team has been training hard lately," he enthused. "With the form we are in, we can beat any team."
Manager Salang Kang was left to pick up the pieces after the departure of Ranariddh and has struggled to balance the books since. "I need sponsors," he admitted. "But we will try to win the league if that can help us get more attention."
Salang Kang remained quietly confident about his team's chances in the semifinals Saturday. "I have my plans, but I don't want to talk yet," he said. "I know we can beat Preah Khan Reach, and we will try our best to do that. Their players are old, and some are my players [from] before, so I know their weakness."
However, the manager expressed his concern about the integrity of match officials. "I hope we can get a good referee in the semifinal," he noted. "We are playing against Preah Khan Reach, who have the backing of the Federation president. If the referee is fair and not intimidated, we will give them a good game and surely win."
Photos by Nick Sells (www.nicksellsphotography.com)