If the Malaysian team is to stand right next to the Chinese team, probably only Syamer Kutty Abba, Hadi Fayyadh and Dominic Tan wouldn't look out of place. The squad of players that Guus Hiddink brought for the 2020 AFC U23 Championship qualifiers were extremely well built with matching heights.
Yet the game still have many other factors defining the game, not least the technical abilities and game intelligence. Those were the defining factors that saw Nik Akif being able to run the show from the middle of the pitch despite being arguably one of the smallest player on the field.
He was a calming influence in the team and he always knew when to speed or slow down the game, giving Malaysia the breather when required and the push when needed. The 2-2 draw against the mighty China ultimately sent Malaysia out of the competition and one which rakes with Nik Akif himself.
"While I'm thankful and happy that we did not lose against China, the feeling after the draw is still one of disappointment because we were close to qualification. Before the game, the coach motivated us, told us to play our usual game and there was no need to fear China. The players gave it their all on the pitch."
"The two goals that we conceded was difficult for us to prevent because of their sheer physical advantage over us. But that is something we can learn in future games where we need to learn how to defend better against crosses," he said after the match.
Without the injured Danial Amier, Nik Akif took on the responsibility of being the senior figure in central midfield and helped Danial Haqim by constantly making himself available for the ball. His passing crisp, his vision splendid, Nik Akif is the modern metronome kind of midfielder.
But what makes him tick and shine is not only when he has the ball but also when without it. Nik Akif puts in the necessary shift to chase and pressure opponents, as well as putting his small frame about to help out with the defensive work.
The exit from the AFC U23 Championship also means that Malaysia have lost the opportunity to reach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the focus now is surely the 2019 SEA Games in Philippines where if fit, Nik Akif will undoubtedly play a pivotal role for the Young Tigers.
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