A few weeks after lopsided losses to Iran and Iraq in the World Cup qualifiers, the Kingdom‘s national football suffered another crushing defeat.
Last month, Iran routed Cambodia, 14-0, in a 2022 World Cup qualifying match held in Teheran. A few days later, Cambodia was thrashed by Iraq, 4-0, in another qualifying match held in Phnom Penh.
But this time it was to a different opponent, different competition, and the results were much closer than anticipated.
Riding on early momentum, the Malaysian U19 team scored a 5-4 win against their Cambodian counterparts in a thrilling match of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Group G qualifiers for the U19 Championship that Uzbekistan will be hosting in October 2020.
Also in the group are Thailand, Brunei and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Cambodia is hosting all Group G qualifying games.
The Cambodia versus Malaysia game at Olympic Stadium started well for the visitors led by midfielder Shafi Azswad.
Shafi Azswad opened the scoring for Malaysia in the 30th minute. Ten minutes later, defensive midfielder Fakrun Iman scored another goal as the visitors raced to a 2-0 lead. Cambodia’s goalkeeper Tha Chan Rithy could only watch helplessly as the ball raced past him straight to the goal.
With under three minutes remaining in the first half, defensive midfielder Azrin Afiq drove home another goal for Malaysia for a 3-0 advantage as the game appeared out of reach for the host team.
But in the next 45 minutes things changed dramatically.
A 15-minute break at halftime, re-organised attack, and a much-better defensive effort in the second half allowed Cambodia to get back into the game. A crowd of more than 4,000 football fans also egged on the home team to do better after a lackluster first half.
Cambodia came out aggressive in the second half. Only spectacular saves by Malaysia’s goalie Firdaus Irman prevented Cambodia from scoring in the first three minutes of the second period, as the host team reverted to an attacking mode.
After a back-and-forth without either team scoring, midfielder Met Samel finally ended the scoring drought for Cambodia on an arching penalty kick that Firdaus Irman was unable to stop in the 61st minute.
After a Sieng Chantea header went wide, a breakdown in Malaysia’s defense allowed midfielder Chea Sokmeng to score from out far a few minutes later as the hosts crept closer. Many people in the crowd scratched their heads in disbelief as the ball sailed through the outstretched hands of Firdaus Irman.
Malaysia was still ahead, but only by a whisker, 3-2, as the game entered its 66th minute. It appeared that the heavily-favoured Malaysians were in danger of losing.
“After they scored two goals, the momentum shifted back to them (Cambodia),” Malaysia Assistant Head Coach Bradley John Maloney admitted in a press appearance after the game.
But the Malaysians refused to be intimidated. Two minutes later forward Luqman Hakim raced through the centre of the field for a goal that left the Cambodian goalie shaking his head in frustration.
Substitute forward Muslihuddin Atiq scored another goal for Malaysia in the 73rd minute as the visitors up their advantage to 5-2 in the 73rd minute.
Cambodia would not give up as two goals from forward Ry Leap Pheng and defensive midfielder Soeuth Nava in the 77th and 88th minute brought the hosts within one again.
After Nava’s goal, Firdaus Irman momentarily laid himself on the grass, apparently suffering from cramps. But he returned to the game a few minutes later and played hero with the game on the line.
After a goalmouth scramble, Midfielder Ean Pisey had his effort blocked by Firdaus Irman, and Nava’s header up close sailed wide as Cambodia missed two chances to equalise in the final minutes.
The game was highly-physical and appeared testy at times, with several players from both sides handed a yellow card. Malaysia midfielder Mukhairi Ajmal was booted out in the second half after receiving a red card.
“We gave our best effort. Of course, it was a tough loss. They (the Malaysians) are a good team,” Cambodia Head Coach Koji Gyotoku said after the game. “We are looking at the next game.”
Next up for Cambodia will be CNMI on Tuesday night starting 6:30 pm. The other game will pit Brunei versus Thailand starting 3:30 pm.
In the other game Sunday, the Brunei booters narrowly won over CNMI, 4-3.
There are 11 groups for the qualifiers. The winners from each group and four runners-up will advance to the championship stage.