So close and yet so far, is the story of Cambodia's AFF Suzuki Cup qualification campaign that has just run its course in Vientiane in Laos. After the three matches played by the four teams, Laos, Philippines and Cambodia all finished the qualifiers with five points each but the Laotians (8 goals for-3 goals against) finished first by virtue of scoring one goal more than the Filipinos (7-2). Cambodia finished third on goal difference (4-2) and miss out on the group stage. In early December Laos will face hosts Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia in Group A in Jakarta, while Philippines will meet defending champions Vietnam, Singapore and Myanmar in Group B in Hanoi. Meanwhile, Cambodia will be licking their wounds back in Phnom Penh. Their next action is not until they lock horns with Macau in the AFC Challenge Cup qualification round, home and away on 9 and 16 February 2011. Missing out on the group stages of the Suzuki Cup will be a big blow for new coach, South Korean Lee Tae-Hoon (pictured) and his squad. They spent more than a month together in Vietnam in preparation after the coach finally arrived towards the end of August. In fact it was a similar story for the two teams that did make it through, with both Laos (David Booth) and Philippines (Simon McMenemy) both taking new coaches on board just before this week's qualifiers.
A failure to find the target in phases of play when they were on top against both Laos and especially the Philippines, as well as not scoring enough goals past the whipping boys of the group, Timor Leste, are the obvious reasons why Cambodia are not progressing. Despite a Khim Borey hat-trick in 14 minutes against Timor, they didn't press home their advantage enough in that game, and it has cost them dearly. I will be interested to hear why the coach changed the formation for the final game, moving Borey back into a withdrawn midfield role (even though his nose for a goal had been heightened with his Timor hat-trick) and switching Kuoch Sokumpheak into attack, as the switch didn't work. I was not convinced either by repeated insistence that Tum Saray should be the man to change things from the bench in each of the three games, when more dynamic players were left back in Phnom Penh and not selected to travel.
Speaking to the official competition website after the match ended, Lee Tae-Hoon said; "I know that my players have tried their best and they are developing step by step. We have a number of young players here and we will learn for our weaknesses and try to improve the next time." The coach, who is on a one-year contract, will have ample time to select a squad of his own choosing for the two Challenge Cup qualifiers against Macau in February, though the C-League won't start until after that, so his selected players will only have their pre-season training and maybe the odd Hun Sen Cup game under their belt to sharpen their fitness. The importance of the Macau fixtures for Cambodia's national team in 2011 and beyond cannot be overstated. They are must win matches. Added to that there are World Cup qualifying matches coming up in the middle of the year, which will also determine the future picture of the country's international football programme. Tough challenges ahead for Lee Tae-Hoon and he's got to get it right.