On a mission to redeem pride

Squad 26 of Harimau Malaya. Photo: Football Association of Malaysia

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BY AHMAD NAZRIN SYAHMI MOHAMAD ARIF

KUALA LUMPUR: September 3, 2015 will forever be remembered as the day Malaysian football plunged to its lowest ebb when they lost 10-0 to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the 2018 World Cup qualifying second round Asian Zone Group A match at the Mohamed Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

Today (June 3), almost six years later, the Harimau Malaya will finally have a chance to bury the ghosts of the past and redeem their pride when they take on the UAE at the Zabeel Stadium in Dubai (12.45 am Friday Malaysian time) in their Group G second-round 2022 World Cup/2023 Asian Cup Qualifiers.

Surely, even the staunchest Harimau Malaya supporter will be dreading today’s match, recalling what happened to coach Dollah Salleh’s men on that fateful day back in 2015.

But hope, they say, springs eternal and that’s exactly what world No 153 Malaysia will have in abundance when they take on the UAE, ranked 73rd in the world, as the national team themselves seem to have undergone a “revolution”, following the inclusion of naturalised players as well as those of mixed parentage.   

On paper, the prospect of a Malaysian victory, let alone a draw, looks bleak indeed. The two teams have met 14 times since 1980 and Malaysia have only won twice and lost 11 times, with the latest being the 2-1 defeat by the UAE during the qualifying campaign at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil in September, 2019.

As much as this statistic can be a burden to the players, it may well be the impetus they need to pull off the unexpected and claim their first win over The Whites since their 2-1 triumph at the 1982 Merdeka Tournament.

After a long break following the Covid-19 pandemic, the national team have been boosted by the inclusion of three naturalised players, namely Mohamadou Sumareh, Liridon Krasniqi and Guilherme De Paula.

To top it all off, head coach Tan Chen Hoe will also be able to unleash his new “secret weapon” in 24-year-old Europe-based Dion Cools (of Danish Superliga club Midtjylland), who is of Malaysian-Belgium parentage, after the defender was given the green light to don national colours.

His presence could not have been more timely as the Harimau Malaya will surely need a strong backline to thwart an expected all-out attack by the UAE led by prolific striker Ali Mabkhout, who notched both the goals when they beat Malaysia 2-1 at Bukit Jalil in September, 2019.

The sight of the 30-year-old taking to the field will surely send shivers down the spine of all Malaysians.

Not only did he bag a hat-trick when they hammered the Harimau Malaya 10-0 back in 2015, but he also showed that he has not lost his scoring instincts by grabbing five goals in their two recent friendlies – a 6-0 win over India in March and a 5-1 triumph over Jordan last month.

The UAE, who hope to qualify for the finals of both the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup, have undergone thorough preparation under Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk since the end of last year while the Harimau Malaya only managed to get all the players together last month.

After playing five group matches, a victory over the UAE will surely brighten Malaysia’s chances of topping the group and, thus, accomplish their mission of qualifying for the 2023 Asian Cup Finals.

Malaysia are currently second in the group with nine points, two behind leaders Vietnam while Thailand are third with eight points, and the UAE, with a game in hand, are fourth with six points.

No matter how one looks at it, Malaysia will face an uphill task trying to bounce back from their two straight defeats in friendlies against Kuwait (4-1) and Bahrain (2-0) last month.

To make matters worse, the UAE seem to be hitting their strides at just the right time judging by their two big friendly wins.

Much will also depend on Cheng Hoe’s ability to counter UAE coach van Marwijk’s strategy, though it will be no easy task as the Dutchman has led The Whites to seven wins and one draw in 12 outings, so far.

The 69-year-old van Marwijk is no ordinary coach either. He has a highly-respected record and reputation, having led the Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final, where they lost 1-0 to Spain in extra-time.

Looks like Malaysia will have their work cut out for them. – Bernama