Hot on the heels of their fourth place finish in the recently concluded South East Asian (SEA) Games in Vietnam, the national Under-23’s flew off for their biggest assignment of the year, the AFC Under-23 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan, but it a was losing start for Brad Maloney’s boys, when they were thrashed 4-1 by defending champions South Korea in their opening Group C match on Thursday.


In only their second appearance at the finals, once again Azri G. was rested in favour of Rahadiazli Rahalim, as Malaysia fell to Lee Sang Min’s 31st minute header, before going further behind three minute after the restart with Kim Tae Hwan’s blistering strike. Skipper Mukhairi Ajmal narrowed the deficit with 7 minutes left on the clock to give the Yellow And Black’s a fighting chance, only for a late flourish from the young Taegeuk Warriors’ Cho Young Wook, punishing defensive lapses with his goals in the 88th minute and injury time, as the Harimau Muda went in search of an equaliser.


Malaysia enjoyed a brief spell in the opening five minutes at Tashkent’s Lokomotiv Stadium, coming close with two attempts in the 4th minute, firstly through Hadi Fayyadh’s low shot from outside the box which threatened to tuck inside of the left post, had goalkeeper Goh Dong Min scrambling across goal to parry it away for a corner. The chance coming off Quentin Cheng’s forward pass from the right and seconds later, Mukhairi’s curling attempt from 30 metres was on the wrong side of the goal frame, after being played back by his teammate.


South Korea, coached by Hwang Sun Hong, were patient and grew to dominate the first half from that moment. Park Jeong In had their initial look at goal in the 14th minute, shooting wide inside the box after receiving Hong Hyun Seok’s throughball from the left. Thirteen minutes later, once again they exploited the left channel; a flighted ball into the box invited defender Lee Kyu Hyuk to go for it, but his effort just outside the six yard box, ended up in the side netting.


Despite their superiority, the Koreans needed an individual error from Rahadiazli to go ahead, when he committed the same error as Azri G. did in the SEA Games semi-final against Vietnam, unnecessarily coming off his line, flapping at a corner, allowing Sang Min the easiest of tasks to head home into an empty goal.


The red shirts could have gone two goals up four minutes before the breather, Rahadiazli doing just enough to put off Jeong Sang Bin, who rushed his low shot from the right, inches off target, after reacting to a through ball into the box.


There was nothing that the Malaysian custodian could though to stop South Korea’s second of the afternoon. A corner from the right was cleared only as far as Tae Hwan who responded first to the loose ball outside the box, with his opponents guilty of ball watching. The strike coming off Harith Haiqal leaving no chance for Rahadiazli.


Down 2-0, Maloney’s boys never threw in the towel. They almost pulled a goal back in 51st minute. A long ball from midway in Malaysia’s territory, sought Quentin’s overlap down the right, and he in turn lobbed forward to find his captain. With only the onrushing keeper to beat, Mukhairi saw his lob not getting the rub of the green, just bouncing off target, perhaps even clipping the left upright.


Korean dominance persisted though and in the 69th minute, Kwon Hyeok Kyu forced Rahadi into a comfortable low save with his try from 20 metres.


Mukhairi, clearly the best performing Malaysian player, finally got the goal he deserved, when Nik Akif Syahiran excellently robbed the ball at the halfway line, then instantly sent a long punt forward from the right looking for Mukhairi who had escaped his marker to bear down on Dong Min’s goal with a finish that was as cool as ice, drilling it low past the stranded keeper, getting his team back into the match.


However, in their haste to chase for the equaliser, Malaysia dropped their guard and were punished. Conceding the ball in the final third of the pitch, gave the Korean’s a perfect opportunity to confirm the 3 points. Substitute Young Wook, who found himself with acres of space inside the box, received the pass and simply lifted it past the onrushing keeper for 3-1. His second arrived four minutes later, losing his marker to meet Kim Tae Hwan’s cross from the right, he beats Rahadiazli to it.


Malaysia will have no choice but to win their next two games to harbour any hopes of making it to the quarterfinals. They will play Thailand tomorrow, who they beat during the SEA Games, before ending the group round against SEA Games gold medallists, Vietnam on June 8, in a repeat of the SEA Games semi-finals. In their first appearance at this stage of the competition in the 2018 edition in China, the national U-23 squad made it to quarterfinals, losing 1-2 to South Korea.


In the other Group C match played later that day in the Bunyodkor Stadium, Thailand and Vietnam drew 2-2 in a repeat of their SEA Games final encounter. Hoping to get the better of the Vietnamese this time, the Thais required an injury time equaliser from Supanat Mueanta to salvage a point. Phuan Tuan Tai got the young Golden Star Warrior in front within the first minute of play, before Ben Davis drew level in the 34th minute. Nguyen Van Tung restored his team’s advantage in the 73rd minute, until the young War Elephants rescued the game from certain defeat.


Match Day 1 results In other groups :-
Group A : Iran 1 Qatar 1, Uzbekistan 1 Turkmenistan 0
Group B : Australia 2 Kuwait 0, Jordan 1 Iraq 1
Group D : UAE 1 Japan 2, Saudi Arabia 5 Tajikistan 0