The challenge that the Malaysia U23 boys will face in China when the tournament kicks off could have been harder had they been drawn against the likes of Japan or South Korea. However the task isn't made simpler when Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan were pulled out to fill Group C.
Having only played against regional Southeast Asian teams in the recent months, the step up to a continental level requires more work being put in the training ground by Ong Kim Swee, the head coach of the Malaysia U23.
Preparations started end of November and after going through a rigorous pre-season, the players are working their way back into form and fitness. A sentiment echoed by forward Thanabalan Nadarajah.
"We have trained for 3 weeks and there are growing signs of players getting acquainted with each other on and off the pitch. We still have another month to go before the tournament starts and we can still get better with the next phase in Korea."
"From the SEA Games until now, with the inclusion of the U19 players, it has improved the team. We are not playing the usual tournament, this is the first time that Malaysia have qualified to the AFC U23 Championship. So we'll definitely need to fight harder and give our 100%," Thanabalan told Goal after the final home friendly played against Melaka United on Thursday.
A crowd favourite after his exploits with the team in the recent 2017 KL SEA Games, Thanabalan was noticeably the one fans turned up to see during the friendly match. There was a heightened sense of expectations every time that he got on the ball but the attacking side of his game may not be the one that Malaysia requires most come January.
One of the hardest worker in the team, Thanabalan has a fair few faults in his game but it would be hard to find any fault with his work rate. With Malaysia expected to be having less of the possession in the group matches, defensive structure and concentration have to be top notch to ensure that the team has a fighting chance of progressing to the knockout stage.
"We must focus on our defensive structure. We cannot simply go on the attack without a care for our defence because we are playing stronger teams. The Arab teams have a good built and size in their players. They also have good technique but in terms of speed, we should be better. If we can't score also, we'll try to ensure that they can't either," added Thanabalan.
His goal-scoring prowess and knack to be at the right place at the right time in the opposition penalty box looks to be taking a backseat for the sake of the team.