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OPINION: Despite encouraging results, Malaysia's long-standing struggles persist

02:47 BST 13/09/2019
Shahrul Saad, Indonesia v Malaysia, 2022 World Cup qualifier, 5 Sep 2019
Plucky and brave performances are exciting, but what Malaysia need to do in order to go far in the qualifiers is to play well consistently.


BY        ZULHILMI ZAINAL       Follow on Twitter


Tan Cheng Hoe's Malaysia finished its recent series of international matches on a seemingly positive note, recording a slim 1-0 friendly defeat to Jordan at home, before edging Indonesia 3-2 away and losing 2-1 at home to UAE in their Group G of the World Cup Asian qualification matches.

The UAE match on Tuesday in particular perhaps allowed the fans to feel good about Malaysia's chances in the campaign, as for half of the match Cheng Hoe's charges dictated proceedings, after scoring the opening goal only thirty seconds into the match. 

In the matchday two encounter, Malaysia ultimately failed to come away with at least one point against the favourites for two reasons; their inability to put away the numerous chances had in the first half when the visitors were still struggling to settle down, as well as their defensive porousness.

And these two failings, which have persisted since the early days of Cheng Hoe's tenure, are showing no signs of being rectified despite the changes to the line-up and squad.

Against the more-fancied Jordan and UAE, the Harimau Malaya played well enough to create chances for themselves in front of the goal, but lacked the clinical finishing required to make the chances count. Their win against Indonesia is now a famous one, but they could have made things a lot easier for themselves against the objectively poor hosts, had they put the Garudas to the sword from the numerous chances they were presented with earlier in the tie.

Veteran forward Norshahrul Idlan Talaha is perhaps the most apparent fall guy, but young star Safawi Rasid too needs to shoulder some responsibilities. He failed to find the back of the net in all three matches, but was also unable to perform at a level expected of a player with his stature. Furthermore, this is not the first time that the JDT star have choked. In the 2018 AFF Championship, only in the first leg final match did Safawi shine, scoring a brace in the home encounter against Vietnam.

But while poor finishing rarely harms a team directly, their defensive woe is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of their game.

Against Jordan, a brief lapse in concentration by the defence allowed the visitors to go in front as early as the seventh minute. In Jakarta, their high line led to them being penetrated by the hosts' attackers easily. Most recently, an individual error by centre back Shahrul Saad practically gifted UAE's winning goal.

Shahrul Saad. Photo by Sports Regime

Shahrul had previously performed well when paired up with the more experienced Aidil Zafuan, but in the most recent matches, with Aidil being absent, he was not able to provide leadership qualities and a strong character that the green Adam Nor Azlin, his new defensive partner, needed.

Most glaringly, Malaysia recorded only one clean sheet in eight matches this year, even when five of them have finished in a win. Questions should have been asked when they conceded two goals against Timor-Leste in the qualification play-off tie back in June, despite putting 12 past the Southeast Asian minnows. 

In fact, this issue has been raised since last year by Cheng Hoe himself, but no solution seems to be in sight. The two foreign-born players awaiting naturalisation by Malaysia; Guilherme de Paula and Liridon Krasniqi are a striker and a midfielder respectively, and the Malaysian FA has no immediate plans to naturalise a defender.

In comparison, the midfield department has improved thanks to the inclusion of Brendan Gan and Syafiq Ahmad's terrific form, and the engine room is one of the reasons Malaysia were able to make things harder for Jordan and UAE.

Brendan Gan. Photo by Sports Regime

However, at the end of the day, what is needed at this stage is not just to play well, but to also play well from start to finish, and Malaysia need to turn in this kind of professional performance if they want to go far in the qualifiers.

While playing well in patches against the favourites are exciting, it must be remembered that the past Malaysia teams under the previous head coaches too have occasionally produced performances against stronger sides that would be described as 'plucky', 'brave' and 'audacious' in the headlines the following morning. But what rarely happened was for the team to build on these suprise performances, to develop a more consistently competitive team. What Cheng Hoe's squad must do in order to set themselves apart is to produce a positive result at the final whistle, either a draw or a win.

Edging Indonesia in front of their own raucous fans was fun, but Malaysia's concern should not be on their volatile arch-rivals, but rather on the two other Southeast Asian sides in Group G; Vietnam and Thailand.

Even Singapore in Group D have quietly bounced back from their slump; with three Malaysia-based players in their starting eleven, they held Yemen 2-2 before recording a shock 2-1 win over Palestine at home, to lead the group. 

Back in March, the Lions edged the Tigers 1-0 in the Airmarine Cup, in perhaps one of the encounters that best showed Malaysia's attacking and defensive woes.

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