Two years ago, when Kim Swee was building the U23 team towards the 2017 SEA Games, he already had his eyes set on a bigger prize. In reaching the quarterfinal stage of the 2018 AFC U23 Championship in China, it was a big milestone achieved by him, taking Malaysia to its best ever showing in the competition.
Now just a year later, the cycle starts again for Kim Swee and while not quite needing to reinvent the wheels, he's at least been required to make some alteration to the wheels. Gone are a large part of the squad that did so well last year but only because they no longer meet the under-age criteria.
While the likes of Dominic Tan, Haziq Nadzli, Syahmi Safari, Syamer Kutty Abba, Akhyar Rashid and Safawi Rasid are all still elligible, the amount of replacement work needed to be done by Kim Swee remained a huge one. But there's no doubt that the aforementioned six players will play an integral part, not least because Safawi will also now wear the captain's armband.
"We've prepared about 2 weeks and like the other teams, we want to qualify for the finals in Bangkok next year. At the same time, we cannot take things for granted. We know that we have Philippines and Laos are our Southeast Asia competitors and have played against each other for a long time."
"They have improved a lot but China are of course the favourites. We'll have to look at one game at a time," said Kim Swee in Thursday's pre-match press conference in Petaling Jaya.
Malaysia start the qualification process with two relatively easier games against Philippines and Laos, where the home team is expected to not only win but win by a substantial margin. Then comes the crunch decider that will decide who tops Group J and clinch the automatic spot to next year's finals.
Pakistan's withdrawal from the qualifiers meant that only two matches will be taken into account should Malaysia finish in the runners-up spot and with only four spots open in that category, it is very likely that the deciding factors could very well come down to goal difference.
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