Japan did what was expected by the throngs in attendance at the National Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh on Tuesday evening, by defeating their Cambodian opponents, although the performance of Valil Halidzovic’s men against a country over 130 places beneath them in the FIFA rankings said much more about the character and heart shown by the hosts in their final 2018 Russia Group E qualification game of the year.
Coach Lee Tae Hoon opted to leave young forwards Prak Mony Udom and Chan Vathanaka on the bench, hoping the running of Keo Sokpheng and Khuon Laboravy would pay dividends for the Angkor Warriors. The captain for the second game in succession was poster boy Thierry Chantha Bin.
A frenetic start saw Cambodia spurn numerous first-half chances to go ahead. First, Khuon Laboravy beat his defender on the right hand side only to fire his shot above and beyond the near post of Japan goalkeeper Nishikawa Shusaku. Soon after Keo Sokpheng took the ball down gloriously with his right and managed to get his shot away at goal only to see it fly high to safety.
Japan meanwhile, were increasingly frustrated in possession, as Shinji Kagawa and Hotaru Yamaguchi found little space to work their magic in the middle of the park. Midway through the half, striker Shinji Okazaki, meanwhile was guilty of a horrific miss from yards out after the ball found its way to the Leicester City man’s feet after slaloming its way around the penalty area. Genki Haraguchi was at fault too on a number of occasions as the Cambodians played deep within their half, in an attempt to give nothing away and break on the counter. Much to the surprise of fans Cambodia had held the visitors to a goalless scoreline for over 50 minutes before Laboravy turned the ball into his own net from a wicked ball into the box. Just minutes earlier the crowd had been brought to their feet as Cambodian keeper Um Sereirath dived expertly to his left to deny Japan from the penalty spot.
After Sokpheng was stretchered off after a collision with an opposition player, Tae Hoon brought on Vathanaka, yet the youngster did not see much of the ball as Japan had just brought on a star player of their own. AC Milan midfielder Keisuke Honda made an almost immediate impact after entering the game in the second half, forcing a fine save from heroic Cambodian keeper Sereirath.
However, the running of Yuto Nagatomo on the right flank and Kagawa through the middle stretched Cambodia till inevitably a second goal struck to break Cambodian hearts. In second-half stoppage time and with the win ensured, Honda rose highest in the box to meet his teammates cross and head in the games second.
The game was Cambodia’s penultimate match ahead of their final qualifier against Syria next March. Japan, having played a game less, has two remaining fixtures against Syria and Afghanistan which will also be played next March.
While Cambodia may have lost the game on the day, they won many fans with their brave and plucky performance in front of their home crowd, who continued to cheer their side, and the opposition till the very end.