Saturday's Super 4 semifinals saw two surprise results, with Naga Corp beating reigning champions PP Crown 2-0 and Khemara Keila also winning 2-0 over PKR
THE first of the Cambodian Premier League's Super 4 playoff games to decide the season's final rankings attracted a large Phnom Penh Crown contingent of red-shirted supporters in the main grandstand Saturday, but they were kept quiet for most of the match by a Naga team who held the upper hand from the start. With both teams at full strength, Crown decided to leave Mohamadou Ousmanou on the bench, preferring teenager Keo Sokngorn to partner Tunji Ayoyinka in attack. Meanwhile, underdogs Naga went with a five-man midfield formation leaving Sunday Okonkwo to plough a lonely furrow up front, and it worked a treat.
Okonkwo fired over the crossbar from thirty yards and then shot weakly with another opportunity before getting it right at the third attempt after 15 minutes. Fellow Nigerian Friday Nwakuna sliced the Crown defence open with a sublime through ball for Okonkwo to outpace his marker and poke the ball into an empty net, after goalkeeper Peng Bunchhay saved his initial shot. It was the striker's 12th goal of the season.
Crown had the ball in the net on 22 minutes when Tieng Tiny headed in a Chan Rithy free kick, but a flag for offside cancelled out the effort, much to the chagrin of the Crown management team and players. They suffered a further blow seven minutes before half-time, when Beng Panhcharong was booked twice in a minute. The second caution, a needless pull on the shirt of Okonkwo, sent the Crown defender for an early bath, leaving Crown a man short and a mountain to climb.
Phnom Penh Crown manager Makara Be (left) congratulates his Naga Corp counterpart Michael Thachnen after their Super 4 playoff semifinal match.
In time added on at the end of the first half, Okonkwo, who was revelling in the space provided by the opposition defence, tried an audacious chip that bounced off the top of the crossbar as his team went into the break with a deserved lead.
Naga went close to extending their lead within 30 seconds of the restart when Okonkwo's goal-bound shot was deflected wide and Nwakuna headed the resultant corner just inches over. Crown began to exert some pressure, which Naga goalkeeper Chaom Veasna brought upon himself when he was twice penalized with indirect free kicks in his own penalty area for picking up a passback. Fortunately for the stopper, the dangerously positioned free kicks came to nothing.
Crown threw on Mohamadou Ousmanou to add some beef to their attack, and it appeared to pay dividends on 80 minutes, when he crossed for Tunji Ayoyinka to stab the ball home, only for the goal to be ruled out again for offside. Keo Sokngorn also went close with a couple of half-chances, but Naga weathered the brief storm and remained dangerous on the break.
It came as no surprise when Naga sealed their place in the Super 4 playoff final with a second goal 10 minutes from time. Nwakuna had worked his socks off throughout the match, so it was fitting he should score and signal mass celebrations on the touchlines when he fired home a cross from Chin Chum.
It was no more than Naga had warranted against their much-fancied opponents, who had ended the regular season in top spot, whilst Naga finished fourth.
Naga's manager Michael Thachnen was understandably overjoyed with his team's success. "It was a great victory for us," he said. "We played to the plan we set out, and on our day we can beat anyone.
"I was very happy with my players' performance today," he continued. "My midfield players worked so hard, and Phnom Penh [Crown] found my striker too hard to control. Now I have to get the team ready for the final. It won't be easy, but I know we can win."
Preah Khan Reach's Olisa Onyemerea (left) fires a shot past Khemara Keila’s Joel Omoraka during their Super 4 semifinal Saturday.
Khemara Keila 2 - PKR 0
Khemara welcomed back talismanic striker Kuoch Sokumpheak to their starting lineup after injury, and he proved to be the difference in quality between the two well-matched teams. Preah Khan Reach (PKR) finished second in the regular season and fancied their chances of winning the Super 4. Khemara, with their threadbare squad, rely heavily on Kuoch, who was doubtful right up until kickoff, so his inclusion gave them that extra spring in their step at the start of the game.
With the two teams fearful of conceding early, the first real threat on either goal came after 22 minutes, when Nelson Oladiji's header was stopped on the goal line by PKR keeper Ouk Mich. Moments later, Khemara centre-half Joel Omoraka rose above everyone at a corner, but he headed just over.
In the closing stages of an edgy first half, Khemara continued to press, with Ty Bunvicheth volleying over when well-placed, and Kuoch heading weakly at Ouk Mich from close range.
Two minutes before half-time, Khemara got the goal that their dominance deserved. A quick corner caught PKR napping with Ty Bunvicheth whipping a low cross into the near post. As Oladiji challenged, Sok Rithy got the final touch past his own keeper.
PKR woke up after the interval and came more into the game, with Oladiji turning defender when he scooped an Olisa Onyemerea effort off the goal line.
After half an hour, Khemara goalkeeper Mak Theara dived full length to keep out a 25-yard free kick by Prak Monyoudom, but it was Khemara who stole a second and decisive goal seven minutes before the end of the game.
Kuoch Sokumpheak broke into the area, outwitted his marker and fired in a fierce, low drive that the keeper blocked, only for the ball to fall at the feet of Oladiji, who picked his spot before setting off on a celebratory dance to the corner flag. It was the leggy striker's 13th goal of the CPL campaign.
In a frantic last few minutes, PKR went close a couple of times. Khemara's Mak Theara blocked a Keo Kosal shot with his chest, and Samuth Dalin cleared a Zila Seidu header off the goal line.
However, Khemara emerged victorious to set up an unexpected meet with Naga in the playoff final at 4pm September 26. Earlier the same day, PKR will meet Phnom Penh Crown to decide third and fourth places.
Photos by Nick Sells (www.nicksellsphotography.com)