Saitama Stadium in Japan was the scene for Cambodia’s 3-0 defeat in their second round, group E Russia 2018 World Cup qualification match against Japan.
Having failed to win their opening two group games, a 4-0 defeat to Singapore and a 1-0 loss to Afghanistan in June, Cambodia desperately needed to kickstart their qualification bid, despite the heavy odds against them.
Meanwhile, Japans road to the 2018 World Cup had started with a whimper back in June as they were held to an unlikely opening game draw with minnows Singapore. Since then, coach Valid Halilhodzic had failed to garner a win in Japan’s three games at the Chinese-hosted East Asian Cup.
With the pressure on, coach Halilhodzic was eager to arrest his sides’ slump against Lee Tae Hoon’s Cambodia -heavy underdogs – in their second group game.
The odds were never in the Cambodians favour with Japan placed 54th in the FIFA rankings of nations. Cambodia inhabit 180th spot in the 209 team ranking.
In their last three meetings between the sides, Japan have scored five –four of which came in a 4-0 victory back in 1964. Cambodia had yet to find the net against the Samurai Blue and this was unlikely to change on Thursday evening in Saitama.
Tae Hoon’s men were well marshalled in defense, as the South Korean coach placed faith in the pairing of Say Piseth and Souey Visal. Boeung Ket Angkor FC goalkeeper Sou Yaty returned to the national side, as did former club teammate Phnom Penh Crown FC’s Thierry Chantha Bin.
In attack, Tae Hoon opted for the tried and tested partnership of Kouch Sokumpheak and Khuon Laboravy, while young starlets Chan Vathanaka and Keo Sokpheng had to settle for spots on the bench.
Their opposition meanwhile were in an unforgiving mood as Serbian tactician Valilhodzic fielded a team replete with European-based talent.
Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa were both given starting berths by Valilhodzic. German based Makoto Hasebe captained the hosts and was joined in the starting eleven by dangerous AC Milan powerhouse Keisuke Honda.
Naturally, it was none other than star man Honda who broke the deadlock midway through the first-half as Cambodia kept Kagawa & Co at bay with a brave and resolute defensive display.
Honda, receiving the ball on the edge of the box, lined the ball up to strike a fierce left-footed shot at goalkeeper Yaty. The former Crown keeper was unable to get a strong hand to the ball as he helplessly watched as the ball nestled into his goal.
Despite the setback, the visitors continued to pile players behind the ball in an effort to stem the final ball to Japans dangerous midfield. A successful final fifteen minutes of the first-half, saw Cambodia go into the second-half a mere goal behind to one of Asia’s finest sides.
Kagawa, Yoshida End Hopes
Despite the spirited resistance from the visitors, the second goal of the game came courtesy of the right boot of Maya Yoshida soon after the second-half restart.
An unlikely goalscorer, the Southampton centre back drove the ball hard and low from well outside the box – to Yaty’s right – putting the Japanese two goals ahead and the fifth goal of his national team career.
Kagawa, having tested the visiting defense with searing through-balls throughout the first-half, got himself on the scoresheet at the hour mark. The diminutive number 10 could not miss as he received the ball in the box in the 61st minute, duly burying the ball beyond the hapless Yaty.
With Valilhodzic’s men three goals to the good and cruising to a win, Cambodia nonetheless did their best to keep the defeat to a respectable scoreline.
With defeat an inevitability, Tae Hoon rang the changes as the game became a matter of keeping the score down, bringing on Samoeun Pidor in place of Tith Dina
Laboravy and Sokumpheak were ineffectual and on the periphery of the game, as the Japanese rarely gave up possession of the ball, Kagawa and Honda dictating play from the middle of the park, before Honda was hauled off for the day, replaced by Genki Haaguchi in the 85th minute.
Yoshinuro Muto should have made it four for the Japanese in the 86th minute although he scuffed his chance from yards out much to the chagrin of the home support. Substitute Haraguchi then skied the ball from ten yards out before Yaty kept the ball out once more after a six-man scramble in the box.
Sokpheng was to be a late substitution for Cambodia although it was too little too late as Japan secured a much-needed victory – their first in four games.
The tale of the tape saw Cambodia record 26 percent possession to Japan’s 74 percent. The Japanese were able to fire 34 shots at the Cambodian goal, while their challengers registered just one.
Cambodia – yet to hit the back of the net in this qualification campaign – will welcome Syria next week to Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium. Cambodia’s players and coaches will hope the team can reverse their fortunes and give the fans something to cheer about come Tuesday.