BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Malaysia are in the 2018 AFF Championship final, after holding Thailand to a 2-2 draw in their second leg semi-final match in Bangkok. They needed to come from behind twice in the away game, and a last-minute penalty miss by Adisak Kraisorn sealed the dramatic victory.
Thailand boss Milovan Rajevac made two changes to his team; benching Mika Chunuonsee and Nurul Sriyankem. Mongkol Tossakrai and Philip Roller started in their places. Adisak led the attack, while skipper Chalermpong Kerdkaew spearheaded the defence.
Malaysia head coach Tan Cheng Hoe meanwhile made only one change to the starting line-up; Nazirul Naim replacing Syazwan Andik Ishak who was injured in the first leg. Zaquan Adha led the strike force with Norshahrul Idlan Talaha supporting him in defence. Zaquan's twin brother Aidil Zafuan kept his place in defence.
Understandably, it was difficult for the visitors to maintain the same midfield domination that they put in at Bukit Jalil last Saturday. In the early stages of the match, the hosts tried lobbed through passes to get past the Malaysia defenders, which they were able to contain.
But things became much harder for the visitors, when Aidil had to come off in the 17th minute for what looked to be another case of the muscle pull.
And with the defender's absence, the defence collapsed. In the 21st minute, their inability to contain a Thai incursion from the right resulted in an own goal by Aidil's replacement; Irfan Zakaria, whose effort to keep a cross out only resulted in him knocking the ball behind the goalline.
But Malaysia were not down and out yet, thanks to Syahmi Safari. Having been praised for his massive improvement in the tournament, the 20-year old chose the right time to further cement his growing reputation. Out of nowhere in the 28th minute, he struck from the outside of the Thai penalty box, the ball sailing into the top far corner for an unlikely equaliser, and a precious away goal.
The fantastic goal also managed to stem the War Elephants' momentum after their earlier goal. The first half ended 1-1.
At the start of the second half, Rajevac took off Tanaboon Kesarat for Pokklaw Anan, one midfielder for another.
Thailand were particularly frustrated by the decisions made by Jordanian referee Adham Makhadmeh, including a probable handball by a Malaysian defender that did not even register with the official.
In addition, by the hour mark, three of the home team players have been yellow carded to the visitors' none.
But the mighty Thailand showed their true character, and persevered, to be rewarded with the leading goal once again. Again the defence let the team down, failing to contend with Sumanya Purisai's 63rd minute freekick from the left, which was nodded in by Pansa Hemviboon after the first attempt by Adisak hit the bar.
However, again Malaysia recovered against the run of play. First the ineffective Safawi had to be taken off, with teenage star Akhyar Rashid replacing him. The change allowed other players to get more of the ball, and spread the attack wider.
They kept to their possession play, and were rewarded with the equaliser. Following a series of passes to the right of the Thailand penalty box, Syamer sent in a short low cross to Norshahrul in the middle, and for once in the tie, the veteran forward kept his attempt down. It managed to evade goalkeeper Chatchai Budprom, and ended in the back of the net. Once again they were in the driving seat, thanks to the away-goal rule.
Thailand resorted to pinging long balls into the Malaysia danger area in the five minutes of injury time, and in the final moments of the game it worked. A cross from the right hit Syahmi's arm, although he looked to have been shoved from the back. Referee did not see it that way, and awarded a last-minute penalty and gave the youngster his second yellow, and his marching orders.
But Adisak, Thailand's Mr. Dependable up to that point, tried changing his mind in the run-up to his spot kick after seeing goalkeeper Farizal Marlias in two minds, but he only managed to send his shot over the crossbar.
The final whistle was blown right after the miss, and Malaysia have won the tie in dramatic fashion. Syahmi later could still be seen sobbing, while he and the team was celebrating with their away fans after the match.
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