Southeast Asia Cambodia

Phnom Penh Crown All But Set for AFC Cup Knockouts

Cambodian champions Phnom Penh Crown have effectively made history by sealing a spot in the 2023 AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal knockouts, thanks to their commanding 4-0 win over Dynamic Herb Cebu of the Philippines at the Smart RSN Stadium on Thursday.

And while Phnom Penh still have the opportunity to win their group, the Red Singha are through to the knockouts of the AFC Cup as at least the best runners-up in the ASEAN Zone – at the expense of Indonesian duo Bali United and PSM Makassar, Vietnam’s Hai Phong FC, and Malaysia’s Terengganu FC. It’s also worth noting that Terengganu’s chances to qualify into the knockouts are still alive, but very slim, as it requires the unlikely scenario of Australia’s Central Coast Mariners suffering defeat away at Stallion Laguna of the Philippines, a team that had lost four of their five group stage games so far, as well as the Turtles matching Phnom Penh’s insane goal-scoring record.

This success was the latest milestone in Phnom Penh, and indeed Cambodia’s rise in ASEAN football. Formerly the whipping boys of the region, the Cambodian top-flight had saw a revamp since Satoshi Saito took over the league’s management. Phnom Penh’s city rivals Visakha FC were the first beneficiaries of this league-wide improvement under Saito, earning impressive wins over Filipino giants Kaya FC-Iloilo and Bali United in their AFC Cup campaign back in 2022. However, what Phnom Penh did and achieved this season, proved that Visakha’s performance wasn’t a mere fluke.

After a straightforward win over Laos’ Young Elephants in the qualifiers, Tampines Rovers were Phnom Penh’s next victims. The Singaporean powerhouses had been drawn to play Phnom Penh in this season’s AFC Cup play-off round and with the match being played at the Jalan Besar Stadium in Kallang, victory seems to be all assured for the Stags.

The fact that Boris Kopitovic scored twice in the first half to give Tampines a 2-0 lead increased the Singaporeans’ confidence even further. However, just before half time, Phnom Penh struck back through Yudai Ogawa, and a quick double salvo of goals from Andres Nieto and Shintaro Shimizu sealed the Red Singhas‘ place in the group stages, where they were drawn with Australia’s Macarthur FC, Dynamic Herb Cebu of the Philippines, and Myanmar’s Shan United.

Former Nakhon Ratchasima Mazda striker Shimizu had proven himself as a talismanic figure in Phnom Penh’s campaign so far this season, scoring once in a 3-0 win away at Cebu in the Red Singhas‘ opening group stage match, before bagging a hat-trick in a 4-0 win over Shan United at the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium.

Then came the result that got everyone stood up and talking about Phnom Penh – their phenomenal 3-0 win over Macarthur at the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium. Granted, Macarthur brought their second-string squad to Cambodia with an A-Leagues Men tie coming up shortly afterwards, but it was still an impressive performance from Phnom Penh overall, with Shimizu scoring a late brace and Phach Socheavila finishing the rout in the fourth minute of injury time.

Sure a full-strength Macarthur brought Phnom Penh back down to Earth with a 5-0 defeat in western Sydney, but in the end that blip did not matter as another 4-0 win, this time over Cebu at the Smart RSN Stadium, ensured that Phnom Penh would at least finish as the best runners-up of the ASEAN Zone. Shimizu was once again involved with a goal, while Ogawa also scored once, as Lim Pisoth bagged himself a brace.

Phnom Penh’s four wins – where they had scored 14 and conceded none – meant that Terengganu’s hard-fought 1-1 draw away at Central Coast, Bali United’s crushing 5-2 win over Stallion, as well as a tense 1-1 draw between PSM and Hai Phong were all for naught as the four teams had their knockout chances snuffed out, with Thursday’s matches also seeing Malaysia’s Sabah FC advancing into the knockouts as winners of their group while Central Coast and Macarthur are set to accompany the Rhinos as winners of their respective groups as well.

The success of Phnom Penh meant that Cambodian football is heading towards the right direction despite a shock exit from the World Cup qualifiers at the hands of Pakistan back in October. Teams from the Kingdom are no longer being viewed as mere cannon fodders or punching bags, they’re genuine threats to anyone who are foolish enough to underestimate them. And while the knockouts will see Phnom Penh potentially being drawn against much tougher opposition, the Red Singhas, as well as Cambodia as a whole, will view this campaign very fondly in years to come, viewing it as a milestone of the growth of football within the nation.