Malaysia kicked off their 2019 Asian Cup qualifier with a 1-2 defeat against Lebanon on Tuesday night in a match played at Tan Sri Hj Hassan Yunos Stadium. Despite taking a first half lead, Malaysia were left kicking their heels as a drop in the second half saw the visitors earning their second win in the group stage.
As anticipated, Nelo Vingada's first ever Malaysia starting XI consisted of Mahali Jasuli in attack and Khairul Helmi in defence. The Portuguese opted for a 4-1-4-1 formation when defending that switches to a 4-1-2-3 when in attack. Amirulhadi Zainal was placed at the base of the midfield with Safiq Rahim and Baddrol Bakhtiar on either side of him.
Miodrag Radulovic went for a 4-3-3 with Hassan Ali Said leading the line up front with Hassan Maatouk to his left and Mohamad Haidar to his right.
It was a stop-start first half as neither side seemed to be able to have sustained possession on the ball. Play was scrappy with needless fouls committed to stop play.
Malaysia did have a chance to open the scoring when Safiq stood over a free kick midway through the first half but his shot could only hit the wall. Malaysia were also lucky to avoid conceding a penalty when Helmi looked to have tripped Maatouk inside the penalty box but the referee waved play on.
A careless pass in midfield from the home side allowed Lebanon to go on the counter attack in the 38th minute but Khairulazhan Khalid stood strong to push away Maatouk's shot after the Lebanese captain had wriggled his way into a good shooting position.
Malaysia came roaring back with a chance just two minutes later when Hazwan Bakri put Syazwan Zainon through but the Kedah winger's shot failed to find the target. That would the boost that the home side needed and they would open the scoring in the 43rd minute.
A quick break down the left hand side allowed Syazwan to get free, his subsequent cross was poor but Mehdi Khalil in Lebanon's goal somehow spilled the ball after seemingly looked to be control of it. Mahali gleefully accepted the invitation to sweep the ball into an empty net to give Malaysia a 1-0 lead into half time.
After the break, Radulovic introduced Rabih Ataya for Mohamad Haidar to beef up his attack and they were the first to threatened in the second half. Just two minutes into the second period, haphazard defending inside Malaysia's penalty box presented a shooting opportunity to the substitute Ataya. However, Khairulazhan produced a superb reflex save to deny Lebanon from equalising.
Malaysia struggled to get forward into attacking positions in the second half as Lebanon increased the pressure, following the introduction of fresher players including Hilal Alhelwe in the striking position.
That said, Malaysia's defence stood strong and that limited Lebanon to strikes from distance which they repeatedly failed to get on target, although they did managed to hit one shot against post. Not perturbed, Lebanon redoubled their efforts and was rewarded in the 79th minute.
Lebanon took advantage of lax Malaysian defending to score the equaliser when Ataya got on the ball on the right hand side and was allowed time and space to make cut back onto his favoured left foot before unleashing a shot into the top corner which left Khairulazhan stranded.
Vingada was forced to take off two Kedah players in Syazwan and Baddrol due to injuries, to replace them with Amri Yahyah and Afif Amiruddin respectively. A chance was created late on when Safiq drove straight at Lebanon's defence and was able to pick out Amirulhadi's run. However, the latter's effort was well blocked by Haytham Faour.
In the final minute of injury time, Lebanon struck a cruel blow into Malaysian hearts when Ataya again found space inside the penalty box to drill home a left footed shot past Khairulazhan to seal a good come from behind win for the visitors.
As for Vingada, despite a positive first half, saw his team struggled in the second half. He will have more time to work with his players but they will need a big joint-effort to improve on what ultimately turned out to be a disappointing first outing.