It was a brilliant start for the national Under-23’s in the 31st South East Asian (SEA) Games football competition in Vietnam, when they came back from a goal down to beat 10-man Thailand, 2-1, with an injury time winner, in what was practically the last meaningful kick of the game in this Group B encounter on Saturday night against the perennial favourites.
Kuala Lumpur City’s goalkeeper Azri G., returned to the starting line-up for the first time in official competition since being part of the team that clinched a ticket to the AFC Under-23 Asian Cup, during the qualifiers in Mongolia last October. He was not called up for February’s Asean Football Federation’s (AFF) Under-23 Championship in Cambodia, with head coach Brad Maloney choosing to use that tournament, largely as a testing ground and exposure towards other players in order to build his pool of talents to carry Malaysia through for the now and the future.
In the match against the young War Elephants at Hanoi’s Thien Truong Stadium, witnessed by an almost 30,000 crowd, our neighbours controlled the early proceedings of the match with their high energy game play.
Azri G. was called into action after 10 minutes, pushing Ekanit Panya’s near post shot from inside the box, out for a corner. From that, Jonathan Khemdee went close with an unchallenged header that went inches past the right post. The Thais came close again in the 19th minute when Chayapipat Supanpasuch’s free-kick narrowly missed the target.
Malaysia who were banking on counter-attacks to unlock their opponents, had a great chance to score through Belgium based Luqman Hakim in the 25th minute, but unbelievably he skied his shot from inside the box with only the keeper to beat off a cross from the right.
The blue shirts then went ahead in the 33rd minute through Thai-Swede forward Patrik Gustavsson’s weak hit that caught Azri G. flat footed, after some bit of skill and luck inside the penalty box to spin and wriggle past the attention of three defenders when receiving the ball with his back to goal.
Thailand’s opener switched Malaysia into urgency and the Yellow And Black came close with successive chances in the 39th minute, a low drive near the ‘D’ that was saved by experienced goalkeeper Kawin Thammasatchanan and a minute later, down the right with a strike from just inside the area, looking for the top right corner with the keeper beaten.
With halftime beckoning, centre back Khemdee was sent off by the referee for a professional foul on Syahir Bashah running down the left channel towards goal after Luqman had set him through.
Malaysia came out for the second half seizing the initiative for the equaliser and dominated thoroughly against the handicapped opposition, whose coach Brazilian-German Alexandre Polking was forced to sacrifice their goalscorer to retain shape at the back
Just a minute after the hour, it was 1-1. Skipper Mukhairi Ajmal began a one-two move with Nik Akif Syahiran, to power into the box, shrugging off his marker before delivering a cross from the right for the unpicked Daniel Asri who thigh-ed it into goal.
Thailand were hanging on for their dear lives following that, as Malaysia kept piling on the pressure looking for the winner. The matter could have been settled beyond doubt much earlier with chances that went a begging in the 69th minute off a rash strike on the left inside the box that Kawin was glad to see it go high above his goal, and eight minute from time when Japan based Hadi Fayyadh’s free header off a cross down the right from Nik Akif, just sailed over to his disbelief.
Credit to their persistence in going for the kill and some inspired changes by Maloney sensing that Thailand were there for the taking, Harimau Muda were not to be denied of their deserved victory, when a trio of substitutes combined to deliver the winner four minutes into injury time against the 16 time champions, avenging Malaysia’s loss in the 2017 final.
From a defensive error by the Thais in failing to clear their lines at the top of their box, Syafik Ismail took possession, made his way into the box then sending in a cross that Hadi connected only to be repulsed by Kawin who bravely threw his body at close range. The loose ball fell to Nur Azfar Fikri who averted another block by the Thai No. 1 and turned supersub hero, coolly slotting home, sending all those in Malaysian colours into frenzied celebrations.
In the other Group B match played earlier, Singapore battled from two goals down, to score twice in the final 7 minutes of the game, holding Laos to a draw. The Indo-Chinese side, opened the scoring in the 14th minute through forward Ekkamai Ratxachak, and extended their lead four minutes after the break, with fellow forward Chony Wenpaserth’s strike. Heading for defeat, the city state’s substitute Glenn Kweh threw them a lifeline with a minute left of regulation time and they were spared the blushes of defeat when Jordan Emaviwe’s 96th-minute header rescued them a point.
On Friday in Group A, Philippines thrashed Timor Leste 4-0, while defending champions and hosts Vietnam hammered Indonesia 3-0.
The next round of matches in both groups are as follows,
Group A, on Sunday : Timor Leste Vs Myanmar, Vietnam Vs Philippines, Rest : Indonesia
Group B, on Monday : Laos Vs Cambodia, Thailand Vs Singapore, Rest : Malaysia
The top two nations of each group will qualify to the semifinals on the May 19, 2022, and the final three days later on May 22, 2022.
Harimau Muda’s next match is this Wednesday, May 11, 2022 against Laos whom they lost twice during the AFF Under-23 Championship in February. After that they face neighbours Singapore on May 14, and ending the group stage two days later vs Cambodia.
Malaysia were gold medal winners of the football competition for 4 times in 1961, 1977, 1979 & 1989 before it became an age restricted competition from the 2001 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur (2001-2015 Under-23, 2017-2019 Under-22). Since the rule change, the Harimau Muda won twice in 2009 and 2011. In the 2019 Manila SEA Games, the Harimau Muda crashed out of the competition at the group stage, finishing second from bottom in a group that had Myanmar, Cambodia, the Philippines and Timor Leste. The last SEA Games medal the Harimau Muda picked up in football was a silver, after the 1-0 loss to Thailand in the 2017 final at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil.