BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Those expecting Malaysia's Saturday friendly opponents, Sri Lanka to be the same side they edged 4-1 back in October 2018 may be in for a surprise.
The Golden Lions head coach, Nizam Packeer Ali reminded the gathered reporters in the pre-match press conference that his team led for much of the 2018 encounter after all.
"We've played against Malaysia before, and it was a fantastic encounter for us. I can still remember Sri Lanka leading the match 1-0 until the 65th minute. Well, it was a good achievement for our young players who are now playing in the World Cup qualifiers," he remarked.
They have since continued their progress under him, which includes successfully reaching the group stage of the qualifiers through a 3-1 aggregate win against Macao in the play-off stage, the first time in 16 years that they have reached beyond the play-offs.
It was always going to be an uphill battle for Nizam's charges, but in Group H they have recorded encouraging results so far; losing 2-0 to Turkmenistan before they were edged 1-0 by DPR Korea, both at home.
According to Nizam, the improvements shown by Sri Lanka are something he had a hand in, following his appointment as head coach in February 2018.
"I'm part of the story actually, as I'd been working abroad for a long time; in India and Bangladesh. I am already aware of what's going on in the [South Asian] sub-region, and I receive the support from the federation president Anura de Silva and the secretary-general.
"I have not only trained the players on the pitch, but also in terms of their lifestyle, footballing education, and their future targets. They've been made to understand that they're setting the path for the next generation. It has been a long road and they're achieving more now.
Now that they are in the next stage of the qualifiers alongside Asia's big boys, Nizam wants his team to collect as much experience as possible from the chance of playing at a higher stage than Sri Lanka are used to.
"When I first took over the role, I understood that our World Cup is SAC (SAFF Championship)," said the former Sheikh Jamal head coach. "We used to be beaten 10-0 by the likes of Maldives and Bangladesh but now we are succeeding there. [In the 2018 edition] we almost defeated Maldives but we had a genuine goal controversially disallowed. We only missed out on the semi-finals on a coin toss, you know?
"Qualifying for the second round of the [World Cup] qualifiers for the first time in 16 years is like a bonus to us, and we intend to hang on to this bonus. Against Turkmenistan we lost due to silly mistakes, but we next lost 1-0 to DPR Korea, which to us felt like a win. We have more youngsters coming up and are improving.
Almost one year on from their previous encounter, on Saturday Sri Lanka square off against Malaysia again, as warm-up for their next group match; against Korea Republic in Hwaseong on October 10. Asked by Goal whether a surprise against the Malaysians is on the cards, he responded cheekily:
"My team is full of surprises, even I am surprised with the way the guys have been playing!
"We're growing and training hard... Now even other countries are inviting us for friendly matches, which is a big deal for Sri Lankan football, we're happy about it and we hope it will continue growing," explained Nizam glowingly.
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@khyril_muhymeen_18 mahu sarung jersi Malaysia buat kali terakhir. Nantikan temubual kami bersama penyerang @faselangormy ini. What does the currently in-form Selangor forward Khyril Muhymeen say to another appearance for Malaysia? Wait for our interview with him.