BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
The timing of the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship, which kicks off on January 9 next year, seems almost apt for Malaysia U23 right back Matthew Davies. Having left his native Australia and A-League club Perth Glory at the age of 20 to represent Malaysia and join Malaysia Super League (MSL) side Pahang in order to pursue more competitive playing time, the defender now looks set to be included in the Young Tigers' final, 23-man squad for the continental junior competition.
Although Davies did not have to wait long to be picked to represent Malaysia's U23 and senior sides after switching countries, the AFC finals is arguably the highest level of competition that he will have competed in, if selected.
It is Malaysia's debut in the competition, and if he is selected by head coach Datuk Ong Kim Swee, it should be the Pahang captain's final outing at the junior level, as he will turn 23 in February next year.
The fact that he gets to play at the continental level in his last junior international level outing is not lost on him, when interviewed by Goal last Saturday at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). Davies and the Young Tigers were departing for South Korea, where they are currently undergoing the second phase of their centralised camp.
"It's really good," Davies said, "It's the reason I moved over to Malaysia, to play this type of games in this competitive environment. To go up against the opponents we'll be facing is exciting and an awesome exposure for a lot of these boys, so I'm looking forward to it.
"We'd love to finish in the top two of the group. Personally, I just want to help the team succeed. To be part of this team is enough reward for me as it's a really good group. Now I want to work for a starting place and hopefully help the team go through," he explained.
The Malaysia full international also added that one of the reasons that he looks forward to leaving junior football, is that he will be able to focus more of his attention on the senior national team and club football.
"It's slightly easier mentally to only have to deal with club level and national team, rather than to have to juggle between the national team and the U23, to be moved between squads.
"So yeah, it's slightly easier for me to focus now, after this it will be very much about club football with Pahang and hopefully, the national team," noted Davies.
And on the issue of club football, the Pahang skipper expresses no concern at being away from the Elephants' pre-season preparations ahead of the 2018 season.
"I'm not really worried as there are two ways of looking at it; I'm missing the pre-season with Pahang which is slightly disappointing, but at the same time we're getting worked really hard here (with Malaysia U23).
"There's also the opportunity to get four or five games under my belt before the season starts, and not just friendly matches. These are really competitive matches, so hopefully I'll be fine and hopefully when the season comes I'll be in a really good shape and be able to seamlessly join the team back and do well," he pointed out.
For now, he is able to focus his attention solely on winning a spot in the 23-man squad under Ong, and Davies thanks the Malaysian FA (FAM) for allowing the team to get ample chance to prepare for the competition and the conditions in the finals.
The finals will be held in the province of Jiangsu, China, with the temperature around the time of the competition expected to be as low as -3 degrees celcius.
"When I was at the Australian Institute of Sports, the weather was similar. You need gloves, a beanie, a neck warmer. But the worst part is probably the first 10 or 15 minutes before you warm up, but after that it's fine when you get moving.
"I would say after a couple of weeks a player should be okay to go, obviously the longer acclimatisation time you get the better, but a few weeks should give you a decent chance to get used to the weather enough to get through.
"And we're not the only team that need to acclimatise. Middle Eastern teams play in a similar weather (to Malaysia), where it's a little bit hotter than in Malaysia, so we're on a level playing field in that regard.
"The good thing about this call-up is FAM has given us a chance to acclimatise. We're really lucky to have the facilities sorted out for us in Korea for two weeks, before we head to China. We are quite lucky with the duration of time we were given to work together. I think we should have a good chance in the finals," explained the right back.
Although he is set to depart the Young Tigers after the finals, Davies is confident that this will not be the last time Malaysia qualifies for the AFC U-23 Championship for a long time, as he believes that the younger batch of the national team set-up has what it takes, with five members of Malaysia U19 having been selected to join the centralised camp.
"I see Malaysia qualifying (in the future) as we have a really talented group of players coming through, and I can't see that group not qualifying.
"Even now they're exposed to this level, and they're going to bring what they pick up here back to their age group," he remarked.