The Crown starting line-up. Back Row LtoR: Sovannrithy, Obadin, Tiny, Sopanha, Njoku, Bunchhay. Front Row: Narith, Sokumpheak, Chaya, Borey, SothearithIt doesn't happen often but when it does, it's worth crowing about. Phnom Penh Crown beat Netfchi from Kyrgyzstan 2-1 this afternoon in their first Group B match of the final stage of the AFC President's Cup, here in Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan. That's a very rare away win for any Cambodian team but in this particular case, it's a Crown team who are really believing in themselves and going from strength to strength under the leadership of head coach David Booth. And to be honest they should've made it even easier on themselves. With that win, they now have a great opportunity to progress to the final, if they can offer up a repeat or better showing on Wednesday, when they meet Yadanarbon, the reigning cup holders. However, the Crown coach wasn't over the moon with what he'd just witnessed. "Up until the last 10-15 minutes, we played well, we created lots of chances, good chances. However, I wasn't happy after half-time. I wasn't impressed in the 2nd half, as we didn't play the football I wanted us to play and we panicked in the last ten minutes - there was no need for it. It's a new experience for us to be winning towards the end of the game at this level of football. We need to address that. It's a big learning process for my young players. The last ten minutes took the gloss of the rest of the performance." David Booth is a hard man to please, and rightly so after his team came close to undermining all of their own hard work. With Neftchi reduced to nine men and four minutes of injury time ticking down, it needed a full-length fingertip save by Peng Bunchhay, diving to his right side, to keep out a low shot from Mamatov Bakytbek with Bunchhay getting a knee in the head for his troubles in the ensuing melee. Why the coach was unhappy is that he felt Crown had failed to capitalize on a handful of earlier chances.
Neftchi began the game with a couple of half chances including a break into the box by Tarasov Vadym though he fired weakly into the side netting. A scissor-kick by Kouch Sokumpheak fizzed inches over the cross-bar from Sun Sopanha's corner on 17 minutes but the game remained tight with chances at a premium. Neftchi picked up a couple of bookings for late tackles and were happy to hit the long ball to their front players rather than work it through the midfield. On 28 minutes Chan Chaya raced through and went down under the challenge of Neftchi goalkeeper Dzhalilov Zakir but instead of pointing to the spot, the referee acknowledged the raised flag of the linesman for offside. Next it was Crown's turn to look concerned when Orozaliev Aibek had space on the edge of the box and as he fired in his shot, Sokumpheak came out of nowhere to block his drive. Then on 34 minutes, Kingsley Njoku broke the deadlock. The ball broke in the center and Chaya slipped a pass into the path of the Nigerian striker who raced clear of the backline and produced a deft chip from twenty yards out as the keeper came to meet him. Five minutes later and Njoku had laid the perfect pass to Sokumpheak but his low drive found Zakir in top form to push his effort aside. With three minutes of the first half remaining, Bunchhay in the Crown goal was called on to spread himself to deny Askarov Sardorbek's well-hit shot with Odion Obadin then getting in a timely block to thwart Pavlov Pavel at the far post. Neftchi were reduced to ten men with a minute to go when Sardorbek's vicious kick at San Narith was deemed worthy of a straight red card by South Korean referee Kim Jong Hyeok. In time added on, Crown should've extended their lead after Njoku had chased down a long ball, rounded the keeper and been bundled over by Rakhmanjonov Ahrorjon in the box. San Narith took the spot-kick but Zakir dived to his right and saved, with the last kick of the half.
Kinglsey Njoku produced an explosive run three minutes after the break that needed another Zakir save to deny him, after the Crown strongman had swerved past three defenders and sent in a 25-yard rasping effort. Crown made their numerical advantage pay on 56 minutes as Sun Sopanha surged forward and split the defence with a superbly weighted pass for Chan Chaya to run onto, keep his cool, and lift the ball over the keeper's onrushing body. Chaya sank to his knees in celebration. With lots of room to exploit, Chaya was away again but was thwarted after a linesman flagged for a foul that only he saw. Crown received a wake-up call with ten minutes to go, as Peng Bunchhay parried a shot only for substitute Alimove Iliaz to nip in and score. Neftchi's cause wasn't helped by a second yellow and a red card for Aibek after a very poor tackle on Khim Borey with 84 minutes gone. In the final minute of normal time, two Crown substitutes Sok Sovan and Sok Pheng linked up to put in Sokumpheak but Zakir was alert and blocked his goal-bound effort. And then that last-gasp Bunchhay save meant Crown had held onto win and head to their second match on Wednesday in very good spirits.
Coach David Booth looked ahead to his team's second match against Yadanarbon. "In any competition where you put yourselves in a good position, we need to carry on and get a good result on Wednesday. The Myanmar team are a strong team. I know 4 or 5 of their players from my days as national coach and they will play fast and furious and are much more experienced than us. To be frank they will be much stronger than my team. But my team is improving every week, so it'll be a good game for us to have. If we show the same spirit, we can do well. We will always make chances because we have good speed in our team." There were muted celebrations from the players with the realization that the task was half complete, with Sun Sopanha and Khim Borey selected for random dope testing and disappearing at the final whistle. Both had to stay behind at the stadium whilst the rest of their teammates went off to eat dinner back at their hotel, with a big smile on their faces.
PPCFC line-up: Bunchhay, Sovannrithy, Sothearith (Sovan 85), Tiny, Obadin, Narith, Sopanha, Borey, Chaya (Ratana 78), Sokumpheak, Njoku (S Pheng 77). Subs not used. Visokra, Dara, Sophanal, Vanthan, Virak, Sophat, H Pheng. Bookings: none.