For some strange reason, precociously talented Chan Vathanaka warmed the bench for 65 minutes on Saturday but eventually it was his sensational last gasp equaliser which saved Cambodia from the jaws of defeat in the 2013 Mekong Region Football Tournament for the BIDC Cup.
The Boeung Ket star’s trusty left foot produced an on-the-run strike which almost synchronised with the final whistle to help Cambodia force an honourable 2-2 draw in the Group B opener against Malaysia at Olympic Stadium.
All the four goals in this fiercely contested game came in the second session after both sides had been frustrated by more than one missed opportunity, with the rival set of attackers keeping the goalkeepers on the hop most of the time.
“It is frustrating for any team to concede a goal in injury time and it hurts even more when it happens seconds away from final whistle. On the brighter side, we are still in the running and our players need to buck up and win against Laos,” Malaysian coach Ong Kim Swee told the Post.
An ecstatic Cambodia coach Lee Tae Hoon said he was happy that his ploy of bringing on Chan Vathanaka so late as a substitute worked well for the team.
“My plan was to conserve his energy for a critical phase. He plays a lot harder than many in the team and I did not want a burn up kind of a situation. I always knew he could deliver,” Lee told the Post.
“I didn’t give up hope at all. If you look back in the last five minutes, we came across so many good chances including one when an open goal was missed. I am happy it turned out the way it did in the end.
“We have a tough one against Laos, but I am confident our players will do well,” added the South Korean, who is into his second term as Cambodia’s head coach.
Minutes into the second half, Malaysia stormed into the lead through Ambumamee Tamil Arasu but well before the joyous mood in the camp had vanished, Cambodia had drawn level.
Keo Sokgnon, more than making up for his first half lapses, worked out a neat finish off a perfect cross delivered by Phourng Soksana right in front of the goal mouth.
Malaysia regained the initiative and the lead in the 72nd minute when Syahrul Azwari Bin Ibrahim exploited an unguarded moment in the Cambodian defence to post a 2-1 lead, which Malaysia stoutly defended till that fateful moment deep into injury time.
A big crowd had given Chan Vathanaka a cheery welcome to the pitch when his name was called out as a substitute. From the time he stepped in, the 19-year-old striker not only injected a sense of urgency but he also stepped up the attacking tempo.
Eventually it was his touch of ingenuity which turned a nearly lost cause into a worthy draw.
The six-team event being showcased as a perfect dress rehearsal for the ensuing SEA Games, began on a rousing note earlier in the day when a stunningly bold strike in the 74th minute from 30 yards out saw Myanmar’s Nyein Chan Aung notch the only goal of the Group A match that floored Vietnam 1-0.
The happiest man at the end of this highly charged yet entertaining game was Myanmar coach Gerd Friedrich Horst, who still carries with him the fond memories of his team’s thrilling victory over Thailand in the final of the previous edition. However, he would have been a lot happier if his strike force had done a better job when it came to finishing.
Vietnam played as hard as they always do but nothing would have prepared them for Aung’s thunderbolt, which left the entire backline in a state of shock.
Vietnam were left ruing the numerous chances that had gone begging, especially the two attempts by midfielder Nguyen Xuan Nam which were agonisingly close calls.
Today’s fixtures see Group B’s Laos face Malaysia at 2pm at Olympic Stadium, while in Group A, Myanmar take on Thailand from 4pm.