Saturday, February 27, 2010

Comeback of comebacks - not quite

Let's relive the first of today's Hun Sen Cup semi-finals, just to give you an idea of how exciting it was. The clash of the titans, between the casino-backed teams of Phnom Penh Crown and Naga Corp, kicked off at 2.30pm. It was at least 35 degrees and you've got to give credit to both teams for playing in that furnace. The crowd was a good one, at least 6 or 7,000, the band was back in the stands and Crown were bolstered by the return to the side of their teenage starlet Keo Sokngorn, and their coach, was has returned from a stint in Thailand. Crown won the cup last year, beating Naga 1-0 in the final but it was Naga who capped the season as league champions to gain their revenge.

The early exchanges were straightforward enough before Crown took control with 3 goals in a seven-minute spell, catching Naga all at sea and cutting them to ribbons before we were 20 minutes into the game. On 13 minutes, Sokngorn announced his return when he coolly rolled the ball into an unguarded net from 3o yards out after Naga stopped for an offside flag that never came. Five minutes later, he was at it again, selling a dummy to Om Thavrak and rifling the ball into the roof of the net for his second. Naga lost the ball on the half-way line and failed to cut out a pass to Chan Chhaya, who stepped inside and fired a third across the face of keeper Chom Veasna. The bookings started to mount up and Crown keeper Peng Bunchhay showed his nerves when he dropped a routine catch onto the foot of Sun Sovannrithy, who managed to spoon it over the bar from a yard out. The match descended into farce a few minutes before the interval when Sovannrithy went down clutching his face, claiming he'd been elbowed by Lor Pichseyla, who was booked in the incident. The Naga manager called his players to the touchline and threatened a walk-off before Federation officials persuaded him to change his mind and send his players back out to complete the half. It echoed a similar incident in the play-offs last season, when Crown actually did walk off the pitch. The delay had lasted 12 minutes and Naga, three goals behind at the time, took on the role of 'spoilt brats' that Crown had made their own up til then.

The 2nd half was a very different story. Ten minutes in and Naga grabbed a lifeline when Chek Sokhom's floated 40 yard cross sailed over the flailing arms of Bunchhay and into the roof of the net. The jittery keeper made amends with a couple of good diving saves but Naga continued to press. On 75 minutes they were well and truly back in the tie when Sovannrithy, recently converted to a striking role and revelling in the limelight, neatly controlled and fired in an over the top pass from Kim Chanbunrith. With 5 minutes to go, Pichseyla inexplicably handed in the area, received a red card and allowed Naga's sub Chanbunrith to fire home the equaliser from the penalty spot. It was a comeback worthy of any cup semi-final.

Four minutes into extra time, both sides were down to 10-men when Naga skipper Om Thavrak went for an early bath for a senseless late tackle. Bookings continued to mount up - referee Thong Chankethya ended up flashing 14 yellows and 2 reds. It seems to me that Cambodian referees love to write reports after their games as they can't help penciling way too many names into their notebooks. Both teams hit the post in extra time, Chin Chom for Naga, Tieng Tiny for Crown, before Naga were handed the opportunity to record the comeback of all comebacks with a minute to go. Sovannrithy was clattered by Bunchhay as he sped through and Chankeythya pointed to the penalty spot. Teab Vatanak took the kick instead of regular spot-kick specialist Chanbunrith and Bunchhay pulled off a great save to leave the crowd stunned into silence. The whistle went soon after with penalty kicks the decider.

Naga's Chin Chom stepped up to send Bunchhay the wrong way with the first penalty. Crown's Tieng Tiny skied his team's first kick. Bunchhay then saved Tong Soto's weakly struck shot and Keo Sokngorn levelled it at one apiece. Chanbunrith skied the next kick and Crown nosed ahead when Sun Sopanha made no mistake. Sovannrithy netted for Naga, as did Sun Samprathna, with Thul Sothearith also scoring in between, to level it at 3 each. With Sam Mina's kick saved by Chom Veasna, it went to sudden death. Teab Vatanak stepped up for Naga, with his miss in extra time fresh in his memory and planted his kick in the corner but was ordered to retake the spot-kick as he stuttered in his run up. Bunchhay saved his weak second attempt and left Phuong Narong to whack in the deciding penalty at 4-3 to spark emotional scenes as Narong tore his shirt off and ran to the bench in tears, as Naga players held their heads in disbelief. Football really is a funny old game.

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