Saturday's completion of Samdech Hun Sen Cup quarterfinal stage saw both ties determined by dramatic penalty shootouts, with Phuchoung Neak and Naga Corp kicking through to semifinals
National Defence Ministry’s Sin Dalin (right) sees his spotkick saved by Phuchoung keeper Thay Sineth during the penalty shootout in their quarterfinal Samdech Hun Sen Cup match at Olympic Stadium. Defence were ultimately eliminated as Phuchoung booked their place in the semifinals.
Cup drama was never more apparent than on Saturday at the Olympic Stadium when both quarterfinal fixtures went to penalties with local favourites National Defense Ministry and Ranger FC making shock exits from the Samdech Hun Sen Cup.
The day's first match was a military clash between army team National Defence Ministry (MND) and navy side Phuchoung Neak, with the seafaring eleven winning the war of attrition 5-3 on penalties.
Phuchoung had the lion's share of possession in the opening minutes with fluid passing and movement in midfield. MND were pushed back by wave after wave of attack and the defensive line was eventually breached in the 15th minute with Phuchoung's African striker Sunday Silva sailing through a couple of slide tackles to cooly toe poke past MND keeper Samrith Seyha.
MND's response was to lay siege to the navy with concerted efforts penetrating deep into their half. Phuchoung stood their ground well, soaking up the army attacks.
A nasty head injury in the centre circle to Phuchoung's Joseph Oyewole forced him to receive pitchside treatment, returning minutes later bandaged up to look like a Nigerian John McEnroe, the crowd applauding his fighting spirit.
MND's Nov Soksela was effervescent on the wing, nipping past defenders with speed and skill but failing to find teammates for crucial finishing touches in the area, the navy defence remaining watertight til the end of the half.
The second period saw both teams vying to take control. MND substitute Sin Dalin saw his free header float into the keepers arms, whose upfield hoof bounced kindly for Silva who directed his shot straight down the barrel of the MND goalie.
MND suffered a blow in the 50th minute, losing their firepower on the right flank with the inspirational Nov Soksela limping off injured.
Phuchoung seemed too content to sit on their slender advantage with MND keeping up their offensive campaign.
You could see an equaliser coming and just past the hour mark, MND's Phak Rady swung in an inviting cross for Sin Dalin to meet with a diving header that crept under the keeper.
The army team tried to capitalise on its late momentum - a somewhat scuffed shot from close range by Phak Rady was cleared off the line by Phuchoung's Kav Niso - but as the seconds died out, desperate swipes at goal couldn't find the winner. MND's Phuong Soksana got closer to the corner flag than the goalposts with his attempt and neither team showed the class or compossure to avoid the time extension.
The crowd appreciated the tension, banging drums and chanting encouragement, but the players were clearly fatigued from playing 120 minutes in nearing 100-degree heat.
Phuchoung's first-half hero Silva could have had a hattrick of winners in the latter moments. With two golden opportunities already wasted, a move found him with acres of space in front of goal, but his left foot volley was easy for keeper to deflect.
And so the game reached the dreaded penalty shootout. Phuchoung's Kav Niso stepped up to take the first, recoiling in horror as his shot flew wide of the left post.
MND keeper Samrith Seyha jumped up to take his team's first kick, making use of his fresher legs to strike a solid shot past the navy team's keeper.
After Pov Ratha had brought the sides level, MND's Sin Dalin cancelled out his second-half heroics, hitting his kick straight for the pint-sized Thay Sineth to parry away.
After successful conversions from Phuchoung's Heng Sokly and Tuy Sam and MND's Lorn Sotheara, the mounting pressure took its toll again. Om Kumphak did his best Roberto Baggio impression, skying his kick over the bar.
Phuchoung substitute Pov Samnang was given responsibility for the final penalty, the young forward stuttering and stumbling in his run up before sliding the ball under Samrith Seyha.
A jubilant full-team bundle ensued, accompanied by cheers from the crowd.
After the game, Phuchoung's African striker spoke of his mixed emotions:
"I feel realy happy despite missing many opportunities in the second half, especially in extra time."
"We were very lucky to win against one of the strongest teams in the Cambodian league," he added.
When asked why he wasn't amongst the players taking spotkicks, Silva replied: "I decided not to take a penalty. I wasted many chances so the pressure was still on my mind, even though my manager asked me to take one."
MND coach Op Sam An was visibly infuriated by the result. "My team didn't play well today," he grumbled. "They are too proud which leads to carelessness during training. But in the past, this team has done very well.
"However, I will improve and correct the squad to restore our good reputation and win the next competition," he added defiantly.
Old enemies face off once again
The Hun Sen Cup's concluding quarterfinal saw 2007 champions Ranger FC take on beaten 2007 finalists Naga Corp. Naga took sweet revenge over the favoured Ranger team, emerging victorious 6-4 after penalties.
The referee was thrust into action early on, issuing a catalogue of yellow cards for players overzealousness in the tackle.
Ranger's African signing David Adeyinka looked spritely in midfield, attacking with immediacy and guile.
Ranger star forward Kuoch Sokumpheak showed why he plays for the national team, beautifully curling a free kick from 20 metres around the wall that was heading for the top corner before Naga keeper Choam Veasna scrambled over to palm wide.
Just minutes later, Kuoch Sokumpheak connected superbly from an Adeyinka cross with a dazzling half volley on the turn, unfortunately steered too close to the keeper.
Neither team could break the deadlock before the interval, with Naga starting with increased venom in the second half to take the shine off Ranger's domination in the first.
However, it was Ranger who took the initiative with a stunning left foot volley from wide on the right by Ty Bunvichet, smashed through the hands of Choam Veasna.
Naga went in all in pursuit of an equaliser. Substitute Meas Channa on the right set up a handful of telling crosses, a towering header from Chhem Sambo netting the well deserved leveller.
Naga were given a player advantage in the last minute with the game heading towards extra time when a second yellow for a wreckless challenge by Ranger David Adeyinka signified his dismissal. The crowd clapped the African off the pitch in respect of his comendable performance in the game.
In the 108th minute, a scrappy Ranger defence conceeded a corner allowing set peice specialist Meas Channa to supply another expert cross, competently headed home by fellow substitute Neang Chenla.
The game took yet another twist three minutes later when a Chan Veasna corner for Ranger was headed onto the post, the rebound finding Sophal Odom unmarked at the far post to knock in from five metres and draw the sides level once more.
Once again, a penalty shootout was to decide the match. Ranger player Ty Bunvichet's body language made his nerves clear for all to see and he unsurprisingly blasted over the crossbar.
Ranger's Chan Veasna also saw his shot play weakly into Naga keeper Choam Veasna and three converted penalties from Naga's Neang Chenla, Pok Chanthorn and Teap Vattana set up a crucial third Ranger spotkick.
Kuoch Sokumpheak kept a cool head to convert his strike and keep his side in contention.
Meas Channa then made it interesting when his poorly struck effort was saved. But with Naga one up for the final kick, it was left to substitute Chhem Sambo to seal the win. The youngster slotted smartly under the diving keeper and then ran to the corner flag to be mauled by ecstatic colleagues.
Naga Corp manager Michael Thachnan was grinning with delight at the "hard fought" victory against their familiar foes.
Naga had missed two penalties in the first 90 minutes in the previous round against Koh Kong, something that Thachnan knew his oppostion was well aware of.
"Their strategy was to tie, to take the game to the wire," he said. "But we were determined."
Nethertheless, the game progressed to penalties with Naga Corp evidently reaping the rewards.
"For the penalties, I was very confident my players could do it, especially my goalkeeper," Thachnan said.
"I told my youngest player [Chhem Sambo], who is just 19 years old, dont be scared. Just put it in ... and he did."
Naga Corp now face Phuchoung Neak in next week's semifinal at 4:15pm.
"I think the navy team are pretty good," Thachnan said. "But somehow we've been beating them all these years. That gives us a very good chance, but i wouldnt say we're going to beat them, because football can be like that," he chuckled.
Player's wives, girlfriends, friends and family were still hugging and rejoicing on the field when the groundsmen turned off the floodlights.
When asked how his team would celebrate their dramatic win, the manager beamed: "We're going to let everything out!"
Additional reporting by Chrann Chamroeun
Photos by Nick Sells (www.nicksellsphotography.com)