Malaysia’s Under-23 team will face host and defending champions Vietnam in the semi-finals of the 31st South East Asian (SEA) Games football competition on Thursday, after finishing their campaign unbeaten in Group B as runner-up, squandering the chance to top the group following a 2-2 draw with Cambodia at Hanoi’s Thien Truong Stadium.


Heading into the final round of preliminary fixtures with their place in the last four already certain, Brad Maloney’s boys needed a victory over the young Angkor Warriors to arrange a date with the second place team in Group A, but instead they were made to work and battle hard for a share of the spoils against an already eliminated opponent playing for nothing except pride.


With an eye towards the knock-out stage, Maloney made 8 changes to the line-up that was held 2-2 by Singapore on Saturday, resting many of his key players, and providing opportunities for others, although he persisted with Azri G. between the sticks.


The Yellow And Black seized the initiative early in the game, though they did not trouble the Cambodians too much. Quentin Cheng had a meek effort from distance in the 5th minute, but two minutes later, Malaysia had a good chance, with a quick passing move from the left ending with a shot from the top of the box, that went wide of the left post. In the 19th minute, a loose ball from corner that was cleared fell to Safwan Mazlan, but his goalbound drive was blocked for another corner. He came close again with another effort on the left from outside the box, gathered safely by the goalkeeper Hul Kimhuy at the near post. Hadi Fayyadh had the best chance to open the scoring for Malaysia in the 32nd minute, but his header at near post went above the target after an excellent cross from the right by Syafik Ismail, with the Cambodian custodian stranded in no man’s land.


After all that one way traffic, against the run of play, Cambodia went ahead at the stroke of halftime through a penalty by Choun Chanchay, after Quentin was harshly penalised for handball inside the area, while attempting to control a speculative cross from the right. Azri G. guessed correctly, but the strike packed too much power for him to do anything about it.


Syafik earned Malaysia a penalty of their own, six minutes following the break, when Tiang Bunchhai clumsily barged into him from behind while on the inside edge of the box, and Hadi did not waste the opportunity to bring them level, sending Hul the wrong way from the spotkick.


Calamitous defending by the blue shirts in the danger area, almost gifted Hairiey Hakim a chance to put Malaysia ahead In the 55th minute, but he was wide of the mark with a wild try after being closed down.


Cambodia strived to sign off on a high and their endeavours were rewarded, duly reclaiming the lead just after the hour mark, when Narong Kakada got in behind the opposition defence to race onto an over the top ball from within their half, outwitting Azri G. in the one to one situation with a composed finish.


Keisuke Honda’s boys’ ascendancy in this fixture did not last long though, as for the second time, Malaysia clawed back to draw level. Seven minute after going behind, Hairiey collects the ball from the left, and plays it to substitute Luqman Hakim just inside the area, who in turn created an opening for Hadi. With his back to goal, the 1.86 metre striker, cleverly spun his marker, squeezing in a shot on the turn, just inside of the right post.


Deep into injury time, Azri G. turned hero, saving Malaysia from any further embarrassment, racing out of his area to get an important touch that diverted the ball away from the path of goal, denying the Cambodian striker in another one to one situation, where the latter had already beaten the last Malaysian defender for good with his pace on the ball.


Taking full advantage of Malaysia’s slip up against Cambodia, Thailand beat bottom-placed Laos 1-0 in the final Group B encounter to top the standings, and will meet Indonesia, the second placed team in Group A in the semi-finals. The game’s solitary goal came courtesy of At Viengkham turning the ball into his own net in the 19th minute, after his goalkeeper Keo-Oudone Souvannasangso denied Mehti Sarakham from near range.


On Sunday in Group A, in the winner take all fixture, Indonesia booked their place in the semi-finals with a 3-1 win over Myanmar. They got off to a brilliant start, going ahead only after 6 minutes, and were 2-0 up by the 10th minute. Just before the break, it was 3-0 leaving the Myanmarese plenty to do in the second period. The young Chinthe managed to reduce the deficit, but it was all too much for them as the Garuda’s continuously kept them at bay. Later in the day, Vietnam confirmed their status as group winners, putting on a professional performance against bottom of the table Timor Leste with a 2-0 victory.


The next round of matches in both groups are as follows,
Semi-finals, on Thursday : Vietnam vs Malaysia, Thailand vs Indonesia


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.