BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Datuk Ong Kim Swee's Malaysia U23 have reached the 2018 AFC U23 Championship, when they defeated Mongolia U23 2-0, and Indonesia U23 and Thailand U23 drew 0-0 in matchday three of the qualification stage on Sunday.
Malaysia played Mongolia first in the final matchday of Group H, but the unfancied Mongolians defied expectations in the first 20 minutes, overwhelming Malaysia with their attacks and pinning the Young Tigers inside their own half. Ong's boys were reduced to sending long balls that failed to find their intended targets.
The Malaysia boss quickly but rightly hit the panic button, making a double substitution in the 30th minute, taking off Nur Shamie Iszuan and Fauzan Fauzi for Syafiq Ahmad and Syahmi Safari. Only then the Young Tigers and started dominating the game.
Despite this, no goals were scored in the first half by either side, with Malaysia given a reprieve by Mongolia's inability to convert many of their chances.
But the Young Tigers did not need to wait long to get in the driving seat in the second half. In the 51st minute, Thanabalan Nadarajah stabbed in a low cross from the right by Danial Ashraf Abdullah to open the scoring.
And the situation got even more favourable for them five minutes later, when Mongolia's Uuganbat Bat-Erdene was sent off with a straight red card for a foul on Akhyar Abdul Rashid. The resulting freekick could have allowed Malaysia to double their lead, but Thanabalan was a fraction too slow to connect to the delivery.
Their second only came in the 86th minute, when Syazwan Andik cut inside from the left of the Mongolia penalty box, and smashed the ball into the top far corner. The match ended 2-0.
However, the win was not enough for Malaysia to confirm their qualification. The second group match of the night, between hosts Thailand and Indonesia, must end in a win to Indonesia or a draw in order for Malaysia to top the group.
Thankfully, a thunderstorm fell again like it did when the hosts were held to a 1-1 draw by Mongolia in matchday one, causing the National Stadium pitch to be waterlogged and play to be stifled, and it ended 0-0.
The qualification is an exemplary outcome for the boys and Ong, who had to prepare for the qualifiers with their backs to the wall from day one, having to contend with clubs' refusal to release their players, as well as limited preparation time.