Cambodia’s Angkor Warriors look ready for AFF Suzuki Cup battle

After an impressive performance that saw them finish top in the AFF Suzuki Cup qualifying tournament, Cambodia look like they could cause an upset or two in next month’s tournament proper.

Just prior to kick-off in every match Cambodia goalkeeper Um Sereyroth walks towards his goal, embraces one of the posts and performs some kind of lengthy ceremony that appears to be a cross between a loving embrace and a plea for divination.

Whatever it was it clearly worked as a mightily impressive Cambodian side swept aside Laos, Brunei Darussalam and Timor-Leste to book their place in next month’s Suzuki Cup finals.

Deserved winners in each of the three qualification matches this was a performance that was as imposing as it was perhaps slightly unexpected from the host nation.

Laos had reached the finals via the playoffs on each of the past five editions and had been perhaps favoured to emerge on top here, yet were tactically questionable and certainly far too defensive in the decisive opening match won 2-1 by Cambodia.

A rain swept National Stadium in Phnom Penh, with pools of water in sections of the pitch, made the going much tougher in their second match but Cambodia were still far too strong for an admittedly vastly-improved Brunei outfit with all the goals in a 3-0 win coming before half-time.

Having survived a scare against a Timorese side whose conditioning let them down in the second half, a goal from star forward Chan Vathanaka twelve minutes from time eventually secured the 3-2 win and their spot in Myanmar for the tournament proper.

Korean coach Lee Tae-hoon had been roundly criticised for his ordinary first spell in charge of Cambodia from 2010-2012, where the nation won just four of 21 competitive matches, but after being appointed for a second time in 2013 he now has the team playing some of the best football in the region.

Coach Lee Tae-hoon.

He’s done it with almost a complete reliance on youth; of the 14 starters across the trio of matches there wasn’t a single player aged older than 24 and seven were 21 or younger.

Sticking with the nucleus of the side in each of the three matches this was a dominant collection of performances right across the pitch.

Goalkeeper Sereyroth was solid in the limited moments he was tested here and in Kim’s preferred 3-5-2 formation while the trio at the back were the bedrock that the victories were constructed on.

Arguably Cambodia’s best player in the qualifiers was the man stationed in the middle of that defensive unit in the versatile 20-year-old Nub Tola whose positioning was excellent throughout as was his one-on-one tackling as well as his distribution and magnificent reading of the play that allowed him to make a host of clinical interceptions and adjust the tempo of the game as needed given the situation – with more displays like this surely it won’t be long before some of the region’s bigger clubs start enquiring about his services.

In front of that back three throughout was the robust, yet mobile, anchor Chrerng Polroth, one of several players, from the National Defense Ministry club and who played as if he was on duty, locking down most of the opposing threats and kick-starting many of the attacking moves.

The wingbacks, Samoeun Pidor on the left and Chhin Chhoeun on the right were dynamic and dangerous in both cutting back inside and crossing whilst the pair of ‘number eights’ in Keo Sokpheng & Tith Dina were able links for a forward line which plundered five of the side’s eight goals.

Whilst Prak Mony Udom flashed in scoring in both of the opening matches it was the potent Vathanaka who was clearly the star of the show.

Possessing an exquisite range of passing and a driving, direct, style of running as well as a soft touch with both feet, plus a ‘mean’ streak both on and off the ball, he fully lived up to his pre-tournament billing as one of the region’s best all-round forwards.

The atmosphere throughout the weeklong qualifiers was also wonderful and an exciting sign of things to come to come when the Philippines and Myanmar host the group stage next month.

Every match was jam-packed with a range of colourfully attired fans who sang and danced throughout; there were those dressed as clowns, others carrying a collection of balloons almost large enough to take flight and in the final match, some enterprising supporters even managed to smuggle in a full drum kit.

It was a fantastic backdrop for an entertaining week of football and one where the hosts will have made their group opponents in Myanmar, Vietnam and Malaysia really sit up and take notice.

It’s easy to forget now, given the long funk that football in the Kingdom has fallen into over much of the past four decades, but Cambodia was, prior to arrival of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, once one of the strongest nations in Southeast Asia and only narrowly lost to an almighty Iranian side in finishing fourth at the 1972 Asian Cup.

In the Suzuki Cup though it’s been rough going for the nation; this is only their sixth qualification (the first since 2008) and in their previous 19 matches they’ve lost a whopping 17.

On the basis of these three matches though it’s certainly conceivable that the Angkor Warriors could surpass anything they’ve done before and a quarterfinal spot may not even be beyond the reach of one of the region’s most improved nations.

Scott McIntyre