Malaysia have got exceptional talents coming through the ranks who will make them an even harder team to beat in the future, opines Christy Simson of ESPN Star Sports
By Christy Simson
Mahalli bin Jasulli is the Malaysian Man of the Moment. When the Suzuki Cup begun all those weeks ago, the 23-year old right-back was a youngster with promise - now he appears to be the finished article, marauding down the right wing with pace and purpose, and then making crucial interceptions at the other end.
Fresh in my mind, as we head into the semi-final second leg showdown with Thailand in Bangkok, is the moment Mahali hopped over a Thai tackle, ran like Usain Bolt into the space he’d created, and then had the presence of mind to stop and look, before delivering a perfect cross for Norshahrul Idlan Talaha, who headed it home.
Jasulli is one of four extremely talented young players in this Suzuki Cup side who, barring injury and all the other parasites that can kill a career, should form the back bone of an even better Malaysia team over the next decade.
Sadly, it’s extremely unlikely that we will see Wan Zack Haikal again in this tournament. The 21-year-old winger has a torn thigh muscle, but in the crucial win over Indonesia his strength and creativity, in harness with Norshahrul and Safee Sali, was a joy to behold.
At 20, Gary Steven Robbat is the youngest of the lot. He has slowly forced his way into the starting eleven and has shown a real ability to hold on to the ball under pressure. He is also the possessor of a big ‘engine’ in the centre of that midfield.
The last man on the list is 21-year old Fadhli Shas, who has formed an impressive partnership with Aidil Zafuan in the heart of defense. All four men have played together for the last five or six years in the national team’s nursery, Harimau Muda, graduating to Harimau Muda A, which performed so well in last season’s Singapore S-League.
Wan Zack and Fadhli were so impressive at a training camp in Slovakia that they were signed up for FC Zlate Moravce on loan, in September last year. This is a new generation of talent that appears to be unfazed by the reputations of their opponents, and they also have a menacing physical presence. Mahali reminds me of the Brazilian wing-back Roberto Carlos, and not just because of his shaven head. Both men have the thighs of the Incredible Hulk, and the kind of tireless energy that makes them indispensable.
Most of us agree that Malaysia and Thailand are the top two teams in this tournament, and despite what I have just written, my inclination is still to favour Thailand to go through to the final. They have that away goal and they also have playmaker Datsakorn Thonglao, and Teerasil Dangda. I would go as far as to say that Dangda’s equaliser at the weekend was the best goal in this tournament. The technique he showed allied to a frightening natural ability means that he can pop up any time and ruin Malaysia’s night.
Malaysia’s strength lies in its solidity under Coach Rajagopal as well as the ‘never say die’ spirit of this young side.
Christy Simson is a presenter on SportsCenter, on every weeknight. Catch him on the LIVE coverage of the AFF Suzuki Cup when Thailand takes on the Malaysia this Thursday on STAR Sports at 8.00pm and the pre-match studio presentation half an hour before.