BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Malaysia will take on Mongolia in a friendly match at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium on Thursday, March 22, with the hosts recently dropping down to their lowest ever FIFA ranking position; 178th. As this is the Harimau Malaya's first match this year and their first under new head coach Tan Cheng Hoe, there are certainly a few things that fans are expecting from Tan's charges.
1) A youthful first eleven
Next week Malaysia will face Lebanon in their last 2019 Asian Cup qualification group match, an encounter that will not do anything to change the fact that Malaysia will not qualify to the tournament. After the Lebanon match, Malaysia have no competitive matches until the 2018 AFF Championship at the end of the year.
Now is a good time for Tan to rebuild the Malaysia squad in anticipation of future competitions and qualifiers that will take place in the next four or five-year cycle, and that needs to be done by preparing the younger players in the squad.
Tan has called up 11 players aged 23 and below for the Mongolia and Lebanon matches, and it is they who need to step up to the plate come the next round of the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers. After all, they recently showed that they have the capabilities to shine at the continental stage, in their 2018 AFC U-23 Championship campaign in China, in which they became the first Southeast Asian side ever to reach the knockout stages in the competition history.
Malaysia U23 vs Saudi Arabia U23 in AFC Championship. Photo by Asiana.my
One of the young players that should start against Mongolia is none other than the 21-year old Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) forward Safawi Rasid, who is fast emerging as one of the country's top strikers. Just last week, the Terengganu-born Safawi scored a goal to help JDT defeat Tampines Rovers 2-1 in their mid-week AFC Cup group match, before bagging a hat-trick in their 3-2 win against UiTM FC in the FA Cup third round on Saturday. If he is given the chance to shine at the international level and he himself works hard to improve further, Safawi may emerge as one of the best Malaysian strikers of all time.
At the same time, while no one can deny the experience and abilities of the more senior players in the squad such as Wan Zack Haikal Wan Noor, Mahali Jasuli, Natxo Insa and Safiq Rahim, it is doubtful that they can still perform at the same level in five years' time, and Tan needs to avoid the trap of over-reliance. What these players can do for the time being is to buy Tan some time before their juniors are ready to shoulder first team responsibilities consistently.
2) Possession football
When Tan was the Kedah head coach, the Red Eagles wowed the country with their possession and short-passes-based football. Apart from the fact that it was easy to the fans' eyes, Kedah were also a formidable side that dominated their opponents with their intricate passes in the middle of the park.
Tan with Kedah in 2016. Photo by CSN
Now that Tan has taken the helm of Malaysia, he must try and implement the same gameplay for two reasons. The most obvious being that the Harimau Malaya need to start winning again following a winless 2017, while the second is that a perfectly-implemented possession football will start attracting fans back to the stadium.
The past few years have seen Malaysian fans adopting a cynical attitude towards their lacklustre national team, and a Harimau Malaya that start playing attractive attacking football once again, will go a long way towards restoring the confidence of the fans that has been missing.
While at Kedah Tan had Kosovar playmaker Liridon Krasniqi masterminding their moves, with Malaysia he should be able to rely on Spanish-born midfielder Natxo Insa, who has been starring for JDT since joining them in 2017.
But strangely enough, it must be noted that while Kedah still are playing the same brand of football they have been playing under Tan, only three of their players have been called up to the Malaysia squad that will face Mongolia and Lebanon.
3) A win
Malaysia's poor current ranking is due their poor 2017, during which they only managed two draws and six defeats out of eight official matches. The year duly ended in the resignation of Portuguese head coach Nelo Vingada, who had only been appointed in May the same year, before Tan was promoted from his assistant coach position.
Nelo Vingada. Photo by Getty
A win against the 189th-ranked Mongolia, Malaysia's first match under Tan, will signal an auspicious new beginning for the Tigers, as well as provide a glimmer of hope to their long-suffering fans.
Furthermore, a win, as well as a convincing performance, may perhaps convince the Malaysian FA president; Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim to stay on as the association leader, after recently stating his desire to step down due to the national team's low ranking.