Asian Football Interviews

Against All Odds: How Oleg Starysnki Turned The Tides With Phnom Penh Crown

The 2022 Cambodian Premier League’s Ultimate Comeback Story

At the end of Round 1 of the 2022 Cambodian Premier League (CPL) Campaign, many were shocked to see reigning champions Phnom Penh Crown struggling in 6th place. While the reduction in the number of teams in the CPL meant that the level of competition was going to be tougher, many expected Oleg Starynskyi’s side to remain strong contenders. After all, the Red Singha had won the league title in 2021 and started the season the best way possible with a 2-1 win over Visakha in the Cambodian Super Cup, the curtain raiser to the CPL. As such, many were shocked when Oleg’s side only collected 7 points after the first 7 games of the campaign, leaving the team some 15 points adrift of league leaders Preah Khan Reach Svay Rieng at the time.

“It was a tough start to the league due to a complication of different factors,” shares the Ukrainian. “We were in a process of developing our younger players and the implementation of the U-22 rule did not help our cause at all. We had to put two U-22 players into the starting line-up in every game and most of our available U-22 players at the time did not have sufficient experience to play first-team football. The pandemic halted all youth matches for 2 years, impacting our younger players’ development and experience. As such, because of this U-22 requirement, it was frustrating to not field our best eleven players and it required a lot of adjusting.”

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

Injuries also plagued the club with several core players and young stalwarts, who could have been utilized for the U-22 rule, ruled out.

“Our captain and midfield engine Orn Chanpolin sustained an injury as well as our young experienced players like Lim Pisoth,” explains Oleg. “Yudai Ogawa was supposed to play for us in the first round but he was injured and we signed Daisuke Kobayashi as his replacement. Even Daisuke got injured as well in the first round. We had no luck in that department in the first round.”

It is little wonder why Crown had a lengthy injury list since they ended the season as the team with the most fouls against them.

On a personal note, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, which has now turned into a protracted conflict, only further distressed Oleg. The Ukrainian had many sleepless nights knowing that his family was still back home during the initial bombing runs. Red Singha player Valeriy Hryshyn and Crown assistant coach Anatoliy Bondarenko also were deeply affected by Russia’s advance into their homeland. Safe to say, it was not an easy period for Oleg.

Image Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

To compound the already challenging situation, Phnom Penh Crown President Oknha Rithy Samnang abruptly passed away in May at the age of 41. The Red Singha were in midst of their Cambodian League Cup campaign and the passing of their president certainly rattled the squad.

“Everyone in the club was certainly distraught when our president passed on after his battle with cancer,” Oleg mentions. “[Oknha Rithy Samnang] was someone who really was not only the heartbeat of the Phnom Penh Crown but Cambodian football as a whole. He really pushed the standards here to altogether new levels.”

While the squad was still grieving, they knew they had a job to do and were determined to carry on the President’s legacy by playing their hearts out.

After disappointing results at the start of the season, Phnom Penh Crown silenced their critics with a clean sweep in the Group Stages, comfortably overcoming the likes of Boeung Ket, National Police and the National Football Academy. In the knockout stages, they cruised past Prey Veng in the quarter-finals with a 4-1 victory before crushing Nagaworld 3-0 in the semis. In doing so, Crown set up a mouthwatering clash with Cambodian heavyweights Visakha.

With the vast resources at Visakha’s disposal, they were strong favourites in the tie and most fans believed that it was going to be a tall order for Crown to overcome. Yet, Oleg and his team defied expectations.

After a tight first half, Phnom Penh Crown took the lead through Brak Thiva in the 50th minute. Yet, Visakha were on the prowl for the equalizer and in the 83rd minute managed to find one through Mohammed Faeez Khan. The South African centre-back’s effort appeared to have given Visakha momentum to go on to get the winner. However, just 4 minutes later, Oleg’s men established their lead once again. This time it was midfield maestro Yudai Ogawa who converted the ball into the back of the net. As the referee blew the final whistle, the Crown staff and players erupted in euphoria. After the trials and tribulations they were put through, this cup title victory tasted even sweeter and they dedicated it to their late President.

Image Credits: Phnom Penh Crown

“Our league cup win was due to different reasons. We became more flexible and adjusted our tactics which really worked in our favour. The younger and inexperienced players began to gel better with the team. Yes, they were still committing mistakes but at a lesser frequency. Our injured players also began to return to action and things were all working in tandem well.”

Following the League Cup victory and a respectable showing in the AFC Cup Group Stages (where they squared up against Hougang United), Crown began to gradually scale up the league table.

Claiming a top 4 spot was the next goal for Oleg’s side as they wanted to gain qualification to the Championship round, where the top 4 sides would face each other twice (home and away) in a round-robin format to determine the league champion. By the start of the third and final round of games, the Red Singha had moved up to 4th spot and they didn’t look back.

“After the first round of games, I told the team to stop focusing on their position in the league table. We took it game by game, focusing on getting three points each time. Our main task was not to conclude our season too early – finish out of the top four spots and miss out on the championship phase.”

Image Credits: Phnom Penh Crown

After cementing their place in the top 4, Phnom Penh Crown shifted gears and set up with a different approach for the final phase of the season. Facing the likes of Svay Rieng, Visakha and Boeung Ket, Oleg knew it was not going to be a walk in the park.

“We were faced with tough opponents and we were sitting in third place, 10 points behind the league leaders, Svay Rieng. We had a possible 18 points to gain and knew that other results needed to go our way. Yet, our goal was clear – to only focus on our games and churn out the necessary three points one fixture at a time. Then Svay Rieng began to drop points and Visakha began to drop points while we began to collect wins.”

Capitalising on their chances and with a never say die attitude, Phnom Penh Crown entered the final matchday on level points (49 points) with Svay Rieng, and Visakha. Instead of explaining the schematics, I shall use the following visual aid from the CPL to illustrate the possible scenarios that could have awaited the three teams.

Oleg’s side was facing Boeung Ket and fully knew a victory against their Cambodia Classic derby rivals would be enough to secure the Cambodia Premier League. Oleg’s side were now a well-oiled machine and many would have forgotten their early season struggles as they demolished Boeung Ket 5-0 to secure the title.

Image Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

The Championship had been retained and Phnom Penh Crown clinched their 8th top-flight league title. For Oleg, it was his second successive league title and fourth trophy with the club since returning to the RSN Stadium dugout in 2020.

On a personal level, Oleg’s victory meant much more following recent turmoil back home.

“I really appreciate that Cambodia and other countries support Ukraine,” adds the Ukrainian tactician. “It is very important to show that the world can be united against unwarranted violence and military aggression and can help to protect the freedom and livelihoods of people.”

By securing the title, Phnom Penh Crown qualify for next season’s AFC Cup qualifiers and Oleg is determined to once again showcase what Cambodia can do at the club-continental level. However, like other Cambodian outfits, the Red Singha need to once again readjust to new rulings set out by the Cambodian Premier League.

Image Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

“Next year’s Cambodia Premier League will be shifted to August to align with the AFC rescheduling of continental competitions and instead the League Cup will commence in February. We still are awaiting news on the structure of the tournament but these will be official matches and we are targeting to retain our title. We are looking to reinforce but in general, we want to keep the core of the squad for continuity. Of course, winning the league again is a top goal but another priority is to qualify for the group stages of the AFC Cup and have a real taste of international football where we can have home and away games.”

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