By Falah Abdullah
"We made Singapore look good." That was the sort of confidence boasted by Datuk K.Rajagobal during the press conference after the humiliating 3-0 defeat in the AFF Suzuki Cup opener. Sure, the media (and to a certain extent, myself) was skeptical that night as to his seemingly untouchable assuredness of his players.
So, what's the difference between the Malaysia side that lost to Singapore and the side that brushed Laos and Indonesia aside?
Well, what I can say is that FINALLY our Malayan Tigers have been playing with a real width to their attacking play; a trademark trait of a Rajagobal team. The answer to this phenomenon is the re-instatement of Harimau Muda A captain, Mahali Jasuli into the starting line-up in place of Bunyamin Umar.
The solid 2-0 win against Indonesia was a classic example of the difference made by an effective overlapping full back. Mahali was nothing short of superb with tireless running which in turn afforded much needed space for his Harimau Muda team-mate, Wan Zack Haikal, another impressive performer.
He combined well with Wan Zack and produced a seamless penetration down the right hand side that proved too much for the Indonesian defence. The fact that these two were a part of a Harimau Muda team which finished 4th in the S-League in its debut season paid dividends as the two show an almost phsycic like chemistry. Mahali knew where Wan Zack was, and vice versa.
What about his defensive performance you might ask? If there is one thing that Mahali was known for is that he is a right back who loves to push forward and at times leaving huge gaps at the back.
That was a non-issue as he demonstrated his ox like stamina and an impenetrable defensive concentration which frustrated the pacey Oktovianus Maniani. His tackles were well timed and he continued to sprint up and down the right hand side throughout the game. Malaysia's right hand side on that fateful night was invincible.
Malaysia's first goal was down to the great work by Mahali who took on the Indonesian defence before delivering a beautiful cross for Azamuddin Akil who was composed in his finish that sent the crowd into raptures! But Mahali was not done yet.
Moments later, the well built 1.75 meter tall athlete displayed that he was also a force on the ball as he skipped the challenges of the Indonesian defenders before doing the unthinkable; go for a shot himself. His venomous shot went straight into the side of the net.
It is not far-fetched for me to say that his well taken goal was reminiscent of Brazillian legend, Cafu.
Mahali's mental attributes were also exemplary to say the least. He was brave, determined and possessed a high work rate thorughout the 90 minutes.
Maybe, just maybe, Mahali was the "secret weapon" that Datuk K.Rajagobal has been talking about all this while. Do you fans feel that Mahali has been the main reason for our turnaround?