The Crown starting line-up: Back Row LtoR: Sopanha, Sovannrithy, Sochivorn, Obadin, Narong, Bunchhay. Front Row: Narith, Virak, Sophat, Ratana, SothearithWith qualification already assured and with one eye firmly on Sunday's upcoming important Metfone C-League match against Kirivong, Phnom Penh Crown coach Bojan Hodak was forced to rest five of his first-choice starting line-up for the last of the AFC President's Cup qualifiers this afternoon. Determined to win this last match against Neftchi from Kyrgyzstan, who too had gained a spot in the finals with two wins from two games, Hodak was yesterday informed by the Cambodian Football Federation that they would not allow Crown to move their match on Sunday to the following month to give their players sufficient recovery time. Fearing that four matches in nine days would be simply too much for all of his players to endure, he was forced to make changes. The match against Neftchi was always going to be Crown's toughest game of Group A and with these enforced changes, it certainly proved to be, as the coach identified after the match ended with a 1-0 victory in favour of Neftchi. "I'm quite happy and not disappointed because we reached our target of qualification to the next round. This is a big achievement for the club. I always want to win every game but when the Federation were asked to move the Kirivong game and they said no, 4 games in 9 days is too much to ask anyone to play. Nowhere in the world are players asked to do this. Today's match wasn't the best quality and you could see that physically, the players found it very hard to play 3 games in five days. However, we showed we are a match for the favourites in the whole competition, there's not much difference between us and it took a lucky goal to beat us in today's final match."
That lucky goal came eleven minutes from the end of a pretty turgid affair, in front of a big crowd at the Olympic Stadium and in sweltering, humid conditions. Marat Adzhiniiazov gave a 'give and go' pass to Ruslan Djamshidov and struck the return pass over the head of Crown keeper Peng Bunchhay from 25 yards to stun the home crowd into silence. The look on the face of the 20 year old said that he was just as stunned as well with the result. The goal arrived just as it looked that a draw was on the cards for the two teams who had already qualified for the finals, likely to be played sometime in September. That pre-qualification allowed both coaches to make changes to their starting line-ups, to rest players and give some of the fringe players game time. The first 45 minutes, which was completely devoid of any serious goal threat from either team, clearly indicated that the teams had already achieved their target and weren't prepared to go 'hell for leather' for a result. In effect, even with fresh faces in the line-ups, they cancelled each other out.
For the second period , Crown coach Hodak injected some pace into his attack with the introduction of crowd favourite Chan Chaya and youngster Hong Pheng, for the latter's first taste of big-time football. Immediately, the move perked up the home fans, Crown took control of the midfield and used their pace to good effect. Six minutes after the interval, Phoung Narong passed into the path of Hong Pheng and his first-time viciously-struck shot was punched to safety by Neftchi keeper Kalysbek Akimaliev. Minutes later, the young striker was again in the thick of it as Chaya touched the ball to Pheng, but his drive was wide of the target. Just after the hour mark, Pheng's neat touch fed Chaya in space but his run on goal was halted by Akimaliev, who quickly left his goal-line to block with his feet and clear the danger. With both teams making changes, Neftchi introduced two of their most experienced players in the hope of grabbing a result, and it paid off. Pavel Pavlov and Evgeny Pilipas used their know-how to good effect in the later stages and the winning goal arrived after a sustained spell of possession. You have to feel sorry for Crown keeper Peng Bunchhay who gave another faultless performance between the sticks but was given no chance by Adzhiniiazov's fortunate strike. Hong Ratana floated the final shot from Crown beyond the far post as Neftchi celebrated topping the group at the final whistle, though for both teams their objective of qualification had been achieved.
Crown line-up: Bunchhay, Narith, Sothearith, Tiny, Obadin, Narong, Sophat, Sopanha (Sokumpheak 78), Virak (Chaya 45), Sovannrithy, Sochivorn (H Pheng 45). Subs not used: Visokra, Bunna, Dara, Tiny, Vanthan, Sophanal, Njoku, Rathanak, S Pheng.
Coach Bojan Hodak congratulates his players on their efforts and to achieve qualification despite their defeat to Neftchi