Cambodia survive scare vs. Timor-Leste to book AFF Cup place
Cambodia qualified for the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup on Friday night after recording a 3-2 win over Timor-Leste in their final qualifier at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh.
The Cambodians will play in Group B in next month's Southeast Asian championship against co-hosts Myanmar, Malaysia and Vietnam. They open their campaign on Nov. 20 against the Malaysians in Yangon.
The Angkor Warriors got off to a dream start when Tith Dina fired them ahead in the second minute before Chan Vathanaka netted 15 minutes later to put them firmly in control of proceedings.
To their credit, Timor-Leste mounted a fightback, and had pulled level by half-time, courtesy of goals from Anggisu Barbosa and Nelson Viegas.
Nonetheless, despite enduring a few nervous moments, the Cambodians always had the upper hand. They went on to claim the victory when Vathanaka grabbed his second of the evening with 12 minutes remaining.
The result saw Cambodia complete qualification with a 100 per cent record, sealing a top spot finish with a three-point advantage over Laos.
Although the hosts had entered Friday's clash knowing a draw would be enough for them to progress, they were in no mood to adopt a tentative approach.
Inside the opening two minutes, they broke the deadlock when Dina pounced on a loose ball, and blasted an unstoppable shot into the top corner. That was after Prak Mony Udom's initial attempt to race through had been halted by Filipe Oliveira.
Buoyed by their blistering start, Lee Tae-hoon's charges continued to show great adventure pushing forward, and Vathanaka was twice unlucky not to score.
First, he placed his shot too close to opposition keeper Fagio Augusto after beating the offside trap before curling a sublime effort back off the bar.
Yet, in the 17th minute, he was not to be denied as Chhin Chhoeun latched onto Keo Sokpheng's brilliant pass before unselfishly laying off the ball, leaving the 22-year-old with a simple tap-in.
Things were looking on the up with a two-goal cushion now in their grasp. But Cambodia shot themselves in the foot two minutes later when Soeuy Visal's complacency saw him caught in possession, and losing it to Rufino Gama inside his own box.
With Gama poised to break free, Visal had no alternative but to trip him and concede a penalty. It paved the way for Anggisu Barbosa to reduce the arrears as he drove his effort straight down the middle.
Remarkably, and moments after Vathanaka had another goal disallowed for offside, Timor-Leste then pulled level in the 36th minute. Viegas exchanged a neat one-two with Gama to find space down the right before beating Um Sereyroth at his near post.
That equaliser did awaken the Angkor Warriors from their slumber. Similar to the start of the game, they began the second half showing plenty of endeavour and tenacity in their bid to reclaim the lead.
Instead, it was their opponents who nearly added a third three minutes after the hour mark. Silveiro Garcia's determination saw him force his way Visal to latch onto a hopeful long ball, only for him to wildly blaze over.
As the contest entered its closing stages, the hosts had the option of attempting to shore things up, and kill off the contest, aware that a point would still be enough for them to finish on top of the group.
However, buoyed by their vociferous home support, they never stopped looking for the victory. It duly arrived in the 78th minute when the tireless Vathanaka forced his way past Nidio Alves down the left before squeezing his shot past Ramos Maxanches from the tightest of angles.
In Friday's other qualifier, Phatthana Syvilay grabbed a second-half hat trick as Laos came from behind to beat Brunei 4-3 at the RSN Stadium.
Still, Cambodia's victory meant the Laotians had to settle for second spot, thus missing out on the AFF Championship for the first time since the tournament's inception in 1996.
Cambodia: Um Sereyroth, Sok Sovan, Soeuy Visal, Nub Tola, Chhin Chhoeun, Tith Dina (Sos Suhana 71'), Chrerng Polroth, Samoeun Pidor, Chan Vathanaka (Khoun Laboravy 80'), Keo Sokpheng, Prak Mony Udom (Thierry Chantha Bin 86')
Timor-Leste: Fagio Augusto (Ramos Maxanches 46'), Nidio Alves, Jorge Victor, Felipe Oliveira, Anggisu Barbosa, Nelson Viegas, Boavida Olegario, Jose Fonseca, Jose Maria (Frangcyatma Alves 62'), Silveiro Garcia, Rufino Gama (Henrique Cruz 74')
Gabriel Tan is a TV and radio pundit who writes for ESPN FC and The New Paper on Southeast Asian football. Twitter: @gabetan13.