The Cambodian men’s national football team was on the cusp of winning its first match in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, before an equaliser from substitute defender Dennis Chung saved the day for the hosts and sent the heavily-favored visitors and their fans back home into a sullen mood as it prepares to face East Timor today.
Down 0-1 in extra time during their match at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila, Chung delivered the equaliser for the Philippines just when it seemed Cambodia was about to escape with the victory.
Cambodia controlled the early goings, with majority of the possessions coming their way in the first 45 minutes of the match.
Despite having that advantage, the players of head coach Felix Dalmas found it hard to crack the defence of the Azkals.
There were also a few injury scares on the Cambodian side in the opening minutes.
In the 2nd minute, midfielder Yeu Muslim fell hard on the field after apparently getting a shove from defender Justin Baas. A few minutes later defender Ouk Sovann fell and writhed in pain on the pitch after a header attempt put him directly on the path of an advancing Yrick Gallantes.
Despite having fewer possessions and a lethargic offence, the Philippine team, which is popularly known as the Azkals, found itself with more than a few opportunities to score in the first half.
In the 25th minute, Edison Suerte found himself with an excellent scoring opportunity from the right wing with only goalie Keo Soksela standing between him and the goal. But he hesitated while dribbling, allowing Cambodian defenders to close in and deflect his shot.
Midfielder Dylan de Bruycker and forward Chima Uzoka also came close to scoring a few minutes later.
The Koupreys, meanwhile, doggedly probed the Philippine defence and managed to throw the Filipino defenders into disarray. It would only be a matter of time before the visitors could score, and they did it in a spectacular fashion.
In the 41st minute, defender Chheng Meng set up forward Keo Sokpheng, who expertly evaded defender Amani Aguinaldo and slotted in a goal past keeper Anthony Pinthus as Cambodia pulled ahead 1-0.
Sokpheng performed as expected, while forward Sieng Chanthea uncharacteristically failed to score and performed below expectations. But Chanthea, who has carried Cambodia on his back many times, is expected to bounce back in the next game.
The charges of head coach Goran Milojevic tried hard to equalise, but Soksela kept them at bay with a coterie of spectacular saves in the closing minutes of the half.
The second half brought a fresh start to the Filipinos, who went back to the field with a sense of urgency. While mostly passive earlier, the Filipinos became more aggressive in probing the Cambodian backline.
Meanwhile, the Cambodians, who were mostly attacking in the first half, shifted their focus to defence as they tried to stop the Filipinos from equalising.
They mostly succeeded until the final minutes of the game. Team captain Stephan Schrock and substitute midfielder Christian Rontini aggressively went for the goal, but were thwarted by the Koupreys every time they closed in.
The Azkals appeared doomed before Chung, who plays for the German club Hertha Zehlendorf, came through with his heroics in the third minute of stoppage time.
Schrock and Gallantes combined to set up Chung, whose attempt from just inside the box found the back of the net to the delight of the more than 3,000 mostly-Filipino fans who packed the stadium.
The Philippines and Cambodia, which both play in Group A, received a point each. They joined Malaysia and Myanmar whose match earlier also ended in a draw.
Grouped in a “weaker” bracket, both teams have a good chance to reach the semifinals. Also in the group are Malaysia, East Timor and Myanmar. The top two teams from each group will advance to the next round.
The Philippines, which has never been known as soccer-loving nation until recently, has never won a medal in SEA Games football. Its best finish was fourth in the 1991 SEA Games in Manila.
Soccer-crazy Cambodia, meanwhile, is angling for a better finish this time after disappointing results in the 2015 and 2017 SEA Games. The Kingdom’s booters were eliminated in the first round in the past two Southeast Asian Games.
Cambodia is expected to do better today when it faces East Timor at the Rizal Memorial Stadium starting 7pm (Cambodia time).