BELIEF and hope. That is what Tan Cheng Hoe and his men have given Malaysian fans in their first two matches of the 2022 World Cup/2023 Asian Cup joint qualifying campaign.
For many years, the fans did not have such positive feelings - belief and hope.
Though the match against the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday ended in a 2-1 loss, it has done little to crush Malaysia’s hopes.
It’s not like “game over” for Malaysia as in previous campaigns — relegated to also-rans from early on after several big defeats.
This time, Cheng Hoe’s team are not going away without a fight. They will fancy their chances against any team in their group.
Last Thursday, Harimau Malaya tasted victory, 3-2 against arch rivals Indonesia in Jakarta, and four days later, Cheng Hoe’s men felt they should have at least gotten a draw or even a win.
For after grabbing a 1-0 lead in just 34 seconds, Malaysia should have put in two more goals in the first 20 minutes to kill off the Emiratis’ fighting spirits.
But football is all about results and goals. You don’t score, you don’t win. The “ifs” won’t count.
But on the plus side, in spite of the setback, the national team showed they have what it takes to be a formidable side.
For the pessimists who had expected another thrashing by the Whites (following Malaysia’s 10-0 bashing by UAE in a World Cup qualifier in 2015), nothing of that sort happened.
And it was never about damage control by Cheng Hoe who set his team out on attack mode right from the first whistle.
In fact, UAE, ranked a formidable World No 65 against Malaysia’s World 169, could only survive by one goal.
The 2-1 defeat by UAE is not the result that we wanted but the manner in which Harimau Malaya had the Asian giants running scared for large parts of the game and leaving UAE coach Bert van Marwijk looking rather worried on the touchline, tells the bigger story.
Even UAE’s 2016 Asian Player of the Year, Omar Abdulrahman was looking restless on the bench, seeing how wave after wave of Malaysian attacks made his team feel vulnerable and uncomfortable.
But lapses in concentration by the Malaysian defence, particularly in the second half, ultimately led to UAE’s vaunted dangerman Ali Mabkhout plundering a double to cancel out Syafiq Ahmad’s stunning opener.
Cheng Hoe said: “Overall, our players have shown a great performance in the match (against UAE),
“Only that we could not keep the same tempo and intensity.
“In the first half, especially the first 20 minutes, we should have gotten more goals. UAE had two chances and they converted the goals.
“We should have gotten at least a draw in this match. The players knew they have to raise the intensity and tempo in the match because you are playing against a better quality team.
“Any chance that we create, we have to score. We cannot allow the opponents to score from the two chances that they have.
“Our players have to go back and work very hard to go to the next level. It's important that they need to have confidence and commitment. We need to improve our transition and passing, especially when it comes to defending.
“I'm sure the players will learn from their mistakes and take this experience to the games against Vietnam and Thailand.”
The striking position remains problematic for Cheng Hoe as Norshahrul Idlan Talaha, at 33 years of age, no longer has the legs to pierce opposition defence.
Syafiq’s introduction into the starting line-up against UAE was a breath of fresh air and he could soon take over from Norshahrul in the upcoming group matches.
Brendan Gan’s inclusion in the team has seen a dynamic partnership developed with Nor Azam Azih but a third midfielder needs to be identified now that Akram Mahinan no longer seems to be first choice.
While Malaysia possess good full backs in Matthew Davies and La’Vere Corbin-Ong, the central defence remains a concern for Cheng Hoe because both Shahrul Saad and Adam Nor Azlin lack consistency in concentration.
UAE are undoubtedly the strongest team in Group G and Malaysia have already played them with a commendable performance. And the remaining matches against Vietnam and Thailand are relatively easier.
If Harimau Malaya can keep up their momentum against Vietnam (Oct 10), Thailand (Nov 14) and Indonesia (Nov 19), and get good results, it will put them in a dangerous mood against UAE in the away leg in Abu Dhabi in March next year.
Malaysia need to finish at least second in Group G to stay in contention. The top teams from eight groups will be joined by four second-best teams in the next round.