Cambodia’s confidence stumbled and then broke under Turkmen pressure Thursday, falling 0-1 in the first qualifying match of its 2010 World Cup campaign.
Its strength fading after a deft, nimble first half, Cambodia surrendered a goal in the dying minutes of the game, leaving it precariously close to early elimination from World Cup contention.
The first half, however, did not predict the outcome. Whether jetlagged or waterlogged with humidity, Turkmenistan had a gelatinous presence on the pitch at Olympic Stadium, failing to make a single shot at the Cambodian goal.
Cambodia were unlucky not to score at several points, with at least four strikes flying just wide of the goal before the 35th minute—three of them by 20-year-old forward Kouch Sokumpheak alone.
“We’re obviously disappointed with the result,” Cambodia manager Scott O’Donell said at a post-match news conference.
“Our goalkeeper did nothing for the first half,” he said, adding that after the break, Cambodia’s forwards had been “a little bit too cautious.”
“I didn’t think our attacking play in the second half was as good as we would have liked,” he said.
Turkmenistan manager Rahim Kurbanmamedov offered a mixed review of his opponents.
“Not bad guys maybe doing little mistakes some places but technically very good,” he said through an interpreter.
Kurbanmamedov acknowledged that his team had appeared listless at first, saying that the second leg of the two-match home-and-away series, to be played in the Turkmenistani capital on Oct 28, may offer more favorable conditions.
“We think in Ashgabat maybe we will play better. Weather here is hot today,” he said.
Despite the capital emptying at the height of the Pchum Ben holiday, an exuberant crowd of about 4,000 turned out at the stadium.
“In the morning I went to the pagoda and I come here in the afternoon,” said 21-year-old Hor Punleu, waving a Cambodian flag during the break.
“In the first half they should have scored,” he said, adding that while Cambodia had no chance of competing in a World Cup final, a qualifying victory would be nice.
“If we win, it is good. It is wonderful,” he said.
However, the visiting side appeared to come to life in the second half. Cambodian keeper Oum Chandara was defeated more than once as his defenders scrambled to fend off the Turkmen attack.
With a soft touch from his right instep in the 85th minute, forward Mamedaly Karadanov knocked the ball into the right corner of Cambodia’s net from five meters.
The crowd, which had agonized with every pass in the first half, fell silent.
The defeat means Cambodia will require an even larger margin of victory when it travels to Ashgabat’s own Olympic Stadium in two weeks’ time.
The complicated structure of the Asian Football Confederation’s 43-member preliminary competition requires Cambodia to place above the bottom 19 of the 38 lowest-ranked participating countries competing this month in 19 home-and-away series.
As a result, a draw or even a Cambodian victory in Turkmenistan could still mean neither country advances to the competition’s later stages.
O’Donell said Cambodia’s chances of success in Turkmenistan were at least even.
“If Turkmenistan can come here and score one goal, there’s no reason why we can’t go there and score one goal,” he said.