Lebanon 2 Malaysia 1: Same score but much improved performance

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Akram Mahinan, Malaysia
A late winner from Hilal El-Helwe crushed Malaysian hearts as his 94th minute winner denied the away side a valuable point after a gusty display.

On paper, it will show that Malaysia ended their third round Asian Cup qualifier group stage with just a point from six matches. The last and final match of the group became Malaysia's fifth defeat in the group but the reaction to the 2-1 defeat away to Lebanon is a much positive one.

Having suffered a massive change to the squad prior to the departure to Beirut, Tan Cheng Hoe somehow managed to rally his troops and held Lebanon at bay for much of the match. While the winless run reaches up to 12 matches now, the team and fans alike can take plenty of heart from the performance dished out.

As expected, Tan gave Irfan Zakaria his international debut but surprised watchers with his selection of Mahalli Jasuli in the centre of midfield. Newly appointed captain, Zaquan Adha was given the starring role up front with Akhyar Rashid and Wan Zack Haikal on either side of him.

A sloppy piece of defending by Matthew Davies in the 19th minute, allowed Rabih Ataya who was the destroyer of Malaysia in the corresponding fixture last year, to get goal-side of him and clumsily tripped the tricky Lebanese winger. Hassan Matouk confidently step up to send Hafizul Hakim the wrong way, for Lebanon to take the lead.

But without heads dropping, Malaysia started to get some foothold in the match, even threatening to find the equaliser. Akhyar had a shot blasted just over the bar before Davies forced Mehdi Kalil to tip the ball over the ball after the Malaysian right back's attempted cross turned out too close for comfort for the Lebanese keeper.

The second half started out very slowly until Tan decided to swap Akhyar for Syafiq Ahmad, and that proved to be an inspired substitution. In the 72nd minute, Syafiq rose highest to plant a head from a Nazmi Faiz corner to bring the score to 1-1.

Lebanon thought they have found the winner in the 85th minute but the assistant referee decided to flag for offside but television replay would later prove that to be an incorrect call. They were not to be denied in the 4th minute of added time when Matouk wreck havoc down the left hand side before El-Helwe slammed home the winner.

For someone making his international bow, Irfan showed that he could possibly belong at this level, after putting on an assured display alongside Shahrul Saad. Akram Mahinan in the centre of midfield was tidy and tough in the right measure and his presence in midfield was sorely missed in the final few minutes. 

The squad is of course not balanced, a fact highlighted by the appearance of R. Kogileswaran in place of the injured Akram with minutes left on the clock. The Pahang forward is undeniably not a midfielder and it was a tough ask to expect him to give the Malaysian defence the same shield that Akram afforded for the best part of the match.

However, looking from a wider perspective, this could possibly be Malaysia's best performance in the last 12 months and provides a respite to the seemingly continual downward spiral faced by the team. A momentum that the fans will surely hope can be brought into the next match against Bhutan.