BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Malaysia left it late to seal their second straight Group A win in the 2018 AFF Championship, when they defeated an obdurate Laos 3-1 at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium on Monday.
Although Zaquan Adha Abdul Radzak only needed seven minutes to cancel out Phithack Kongmathilath's seventh minute goal, the hosts' winning goals only came in the last five minutes of the encounter, courtesy of experienced forward Norshahrul Idlan Talaha's brace (86', 92').
Head coach Tan Cheng Hoe made several changes to the Malaysia starting line-up that beat Cambodia 1-0 in their opening match, most obviously reducing the number of midfielders from two to just one; resting Syamer Kutty Abba. He introduced forward Syafiq Ahmad in the Syamer's place, while Syazwan Zainon replaced Mohamadou Sumareh, who reportedly was injured in training one day earlier.
The visitors gave the hosts a scare early in the game, when Kongmathilath's free kick from the right sailed into the top near corner in the seventh minute. But Zaquan was able to redirect Syahmi Safari's cross from the right into the back of the net not long after, and that's when the game began in earnest.
The scale of talent tipped heavily in the Harimau Malaya's favour collectively, but Malaysia's five forwards stuttered individually, failing to put away their chances despite their massive possession share. The first half ended tied at 1-1.
At the start of the second, Malaysia boss Tan Cheng Hoe took off ineffectual left winger Syazwan Zainon, to give teenager Akhyar Rashid his AFF Championship debut.
The youngster introduced more unpredictability into Malaysia's game, but he was still hindered by fatigue, having played in four international tournaments in 2018 alone.
Defensively, Sundramoorthy Varadaraju's charges made things harder for the hosts, but their goalkeeper Outthilath Nammakhoth looked shaky everytime the ball came his way, yet Malaysia forwards failed to ensure that they were first to reach the second ball each time the young custodian spilled it.
Cross after cross was sent in by Malaysia's left and right backs Syazwan Andik Ishak and Syahmi Safari, who barely had to track back into their own half, but their deliveries oftentimes failed to find a Malaysian head of foot.
Tan is a man who is rarely flustered, but even he looked frustrated in the match. In the 62nd minute he used up all his remaining changes at the same time, bringing on Syafiq Ahmad and Safawi Rasid for Hazwan Bakri and Shahrel Fikri Fauzi. Safawi, who until that point had been the closest Malaysia forward to come to finding the winner, looked crestfallen as he exited the pitch.
Hazwan too had a number of chances gone astray, but in the end it was a player who started the match who rose to the occassion; Norshahrul Idlan Talaha. Poor defending following a corner kick in the 86th minute allowed Shahrel to poke the ball towards the 32-year old forward in the Laos six-yard area, and Norshahrul had the easiest task of slotting home his sixth AFF Championship goal.
He bagged his seventh in injury time, heading in Akhyar's cross from the left, to help Malaysia record their second group win and go top of the group.
Despite the wins, questions still remain of the Tigers' capabilities. They laboured in both victories, against objectively unfancied sides, while their remaining two group encounters will be against Vietnam and Myanmar, two formidable outfits.
At the final whistle against Laos, the statistics spoke of Malaysia's sheer dominance in every part except for the accuracy. They had 82.3 per cent of possession compared to Laos' 17.7 per cent, 17 corner kicks to none by Thimsad, 11 shots on target to three, 13 wayward attempts to one. Most tellingly, only 35.5 per cent of Malaysia's shots were accurate, while it was 50 per cent for the visitors
In both their first group matches Malaysia forwards struggled to convert the chances they had, while their midfielders failed to contribute significantly in attack.
Against Vietnam in Hanoi this Friday, Tan's charges need to play as well as their potential suggests.
In the other Group A match on Monday, Myanmar came back from a goal down to thump Cambodia 4-1 at home.
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Syahmi Safari and Mohamadou Sumareh have only been fairly recently introduced to the Malaysia starting line-up, for differing reasons. What does the former think of playing on the right wing with the latter in the #affsuzukicup2018? Syahmi Safari dan Mohamadou Sumareh baru sahaja mendapat tempat dalam kesebelasan utama Malaysia, atas sebab-sebab yang berbeza. Apa pendapat Syahmi bermain di sayap kanan bersama-sama Sumareh dalam Piala AFF?