|PPCFC v Tampines. Back LtoR: Sothy, Njoku, Dara, Tarley, Rady, Sovan. Front: Tiny, Ary, Suhana, Sokumpheak, Borey.|
Where do I start? How about at the end, when the dejection and disappointment etched on the face of every Phnom Penh Crown player told it's own story. To have fought so well, so bravely, to have clawed their way back into the match against what on paper is far superior opposition and then to let it slip through their grasp again, is a bitter pill to swallow. Of course it's all about learning the lessons from such encounters, though for tonight it's simply about being gutted. I wouldn't be surprised if a few of the players don't cry in their sleep. In fact I hope they do, because that will mean they really feel it. And that's the type of player we want in our team. Without Odion Obadin and Emmanuel Frimpong, both left back at home, Crown were not at full strength for this preliminary round, one-leg RHB Singapore Cup match. Invited once again to participate by the generosity of the Singapore FA, the opposition doesn't come much tougher than the reigning S-League champions Tampines Rovers. Hurt by their recent exit from the AFC Cup, Tampines were in no mood to fail again. In Alexsandar Duric, they have the all-time goalscoring legend of Singapore leading their attack at the age of 42 and he is the pivot of everything they do. And so it proved.
The word roller-coaster is a bit obvious to use for this match, but that's how it panned out. Tampines provided the main thrust early doors with Jamil Ali letting rip from 20 yards only to see the ball gathered safely by Yok Ary, and Duric taking too long with a shot that Tieng Tiny blocked. In the 15th minute, Kouch Sokumpheak was fouled out on the touchline and Pheak Rady's free-kick was met by the forehead of a leaping Khim Borey who planted the ball inside the near post for the game's opening goal. Fahrudin Mustafic sent a rasping free-kick inches over the cross-bar and then Ahmed Fahmie should've done better when he was free at the far post, but ballooned over badly. Yok Ary dived full-length to his right to keep out a Gligor Gligorov grass-cutter from 30 yards out and was then in position to collect a Duric header from just inside the box. Melvin Tarley's first real involvement saw him plant a near post header into the hands of home keeper Sasa Dreven, and just before the half-hour, he collected a pass from Kingsley Njoku but blasted his drive well over. A minute later Sokumpheak took aim with a half-volley from a poor defensive clearance but was off target.
In the Crown goal, Yok Ary's safe hands denied Ismadi Mukhtar's far post effort but the keeper went down clutching his right ankle, waving frantically to the bench. After four minutes of treatment, he returned to his duties but with just three minutes of the half remaining, he was left helpless when Duric turned Tiny in the box and fired a low, rasping shot inside the far post for the equalizer. The referee signalled two minutes of injury time to the first-half and those two minutes were so nearly the undoing of the Cambodian team. Sok Sovan's weak defensive header was seized upon by Jamil Ali and he weaved his way into the penalty box, leaving Ary on the floor as he finished with a neat chip. In the third minute of added-on time, Ahmad Latiff's measured pass put in Imran Sahib for a free run on goal and he lashed his shot past Ary with consummate ease to turn the game on its head as the half-time whistle was blown. From a position of strength, Crown were now 3-1 behind and with a mountain to climb. Defensively, they had switched off as half-time approached and were made to pay dearly. Coach David Booth's interval team-talk focused on what they needed to do, to get back into the match and the turnaround would be as equally remarkable.
The first sniff on goal after the break came from Tarley's powerful header which cleared the bar. It was his last piece of action, before he and Ouk Sothy were replaced by Sok Pheng and Henry Asonibe on 56 minutes. Half a minute later, a foul on Njoku allowed Khim Borey to float a free-kick from thirty yards out, to an unmarked Kouch Sokumpheak racing towards the far post and his expertly timed volley sailed past Dreven. It was game on, and a perfect move transplanted from the training ground. With the bit between their teeth, Crown pressed forward and Sos Suhana's pass allowed Njoku a run on goal, only for his shot to be smothered by Dreven. Next it was Suhana who went close when his toe-poke rebounded to safety off the foot of the upright. Then on the hour, Crown got the breakthrough they deserved. Pheak Rady's cross fell to Sok Pheng and his low drive was pushed out by Dreven, only for Kouch Sokumpheak to head goalwards and be denied by the keeper again. Third-time lucky, the ball rolled back to Sokumpheak and he gleefully lashed it into the gaping net. It was now 3-3 and all to play for. Tampines finally found their feet again and Latiff's shot was deflected for a corner by Sovan. However, the same player was unable to hold off the talismanic Duric on 64 minutes, as the local hero received a pass from Gligorov, turned and did what he does best, found the back of the net with unerring accuracy from fifteen yards out. It was a deflating moment for Crown, who'd done wonders to get out of jail only to fall to a sucker punch just moments later.
A couple of minutes on and Sokumpheak struck a vicious shot over the cross-bar from 25 yards out, but Tampines were in no mood to relinquish their new-found lead. As the game entered the last ten minutes, Latiff twice found space on the edge of the box but failed on both occasions to work the goalkeeper and then Gligorov was also wayward in his finishing. In a desperate last few minutes, Tampines got everyone back in their penalty area to defend a free-kick and a corner, successfully it turned out, as the final whistle went and the home side had registered a hard-fought 4-3 success over a very game Crown team.
PPCFC v Tampines: Ary, Dara, Rady, Sovan, Tiny, Sothy (Asonibe 56), Suhana, Borey, Sokumpheak, Njoku (H Pheng 76), Tarley (S Pheng 56). Subs not used: Chamrouen, Lika, Sovanna. Bookings: Sovan. Attendance: 487.