India pass Cambodia test – but only just

There are friendlies and there are friendlies and Wednesday’s clash between Cambodia and India was an exciting clash full of entertainment, skill and drama. India won 3-2 but need to give the hosts a huge hug of thanks.

Not only did the victory, as tight as it was, mark India’s first friendly win away from home in more than a decade, it made it five wins in five for the South Asians. Confidence is high.

It also was the perfect warm-up for the real deal – Tuesday’s 2019 Asian Cup qualifier in Myanmar. There was another big crowd in Phnom Penh for a friendly.

There are few stadiums around Asia that can offer a real atmosphere for a friendly game. If federations around the continent had any sense, they would be getting on the phone to Cambodia to try and perfect their warm-ups. They should also be asking, how they do it.

As well as giving India a taste of the atmosphere they will face in Yangon next week -indeed, it remains to be seen if Myanmar can live up to the standards set by the Cambodian capital – the hosts revealed a few issues that the South Asians have to work on.

With little time together in the last few months, it was understandable that the Blue Tigers were rusty and slow compared to the fast and intense Cambodian play. There were, however, some defensive lapses that will give coach Stephen Constantine coach plenty of work to do over the next few days.

While the Indian backline held out under considerable pressure for much of the game, the two goals that were conceded will have their English coach concerned while relieved that this was only a friendly.

The first Cambodia goal was doubly upsetting as it came just seconds after Sunil Chhetri had given the visitors the lead in the 36th minute with international goal number 52. India had weathered the early pressure from the hosts and had come back into the game and grabbed the all-important opening goal.

Taking a lead into half-time was the target. Instead, within seconds, the visitors switched off and allowed Khoun Laboravy to collect the ball unmarked just outside the six-yard box. The striker made no mistake to equalise but most defences will not be that generous.

Thanks to changes made during the break, India were much better after the restart, working harder to put the hosts under pressure and deny them space and time on the ball. They were rewarded by two goals in quick succession to make a cushion that was going to be necessary.

Chan Vathanaka got on the scoresheet to make it 3-2 just after the hour. The highly-rated forward, now in Japan’s third tier, picked up the ball outside the area. The 23 year-old did what many do not and had a look around before he received the ball before firing home past the diving Gupreet Singh for his 11th international goal. He may have been given acres of space and plenty of time to pick his spot but it was another example of what he can do.

The forward’s quick brain and talented feet will cause problems for better teams than India and he was a thorn in the team’s side all night, creating chances – a great one was laid on for Thierry Chantha Bin that the Thai-based midfielder should have buried. CV himself was a bit wasteful in front of goal too.

Despite the wasted opportunities, Cambodia’s talent going forward deserves a better defence. If only the team were more solid at the back then they would have a real chance of qualifying for the Asian Cup.

Two of India’s three goals came from horribly defended corners. It was almost painful to watch but the 50,000 fans at the stadium stayed to cheer on their heroes.

There can be some excuses. It was the first game in charge for new Brazilian coach Leonardo Vitorino, appointed just three weeks earlier, who went with three at the back and coaxed some incisive and intensive play from his men. Keeping that attacking verve while tightening up at the back is the challenge for the Brazilian. If he can do that then Cambodia will trouble Vietnam and Jordan, especially in Phnom Penh.

For both teams and coaches then, there was plenty to take away. Cambodia, at times, outplayed a team ranked 41 places higher and the new coach has plenty to think about.

India got the away win, a real test, a taste of the Myanmar atmosphere and the technique and speed of the players they will face, while realising that if they don’t defend better then dreams of qualifying for the Asian Cup will not be realised.

Perhaps most importantly, the fans who packed into the Phnom Penh Stadium got a great night’s entertainment. If only friendlies were always like this.

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