NAM DINH • Muhammad Nur Azfar Fikri Azhar turned super sub when he scored a last-gasp goal to help Malaysia beat Thailand 2-1 for a sensational start in Group B of men’s football in the 31st SEA Games at the Thien Truong Stadium here tonight.
The result allowed Malaysia to avenge their loss to Thailand in the final of the 2017 edition in Kuala Lumpur, which also happened to be the last time these two teams clashed in the biennial Games.
Playing in front of almost 30,000 spectators, Thailand, under the guidance of coach Alexandre Polking, controlled the game in the first half with an aggressive approach.
The Thais had their first look at the Malaysian goalmouth in the 10th minute but goalkeeper Muhammad Azri Ab Ghani did well to thwart Ekanit Panya before Chayapipat Supanpasuch’s 19th-minute free-kick narrowly missed the target.
Malaysia, who launched sporadic counterattacks, had a great chance to open the scoring in the 25th minute but Luqman Hakim Shamsudin ballooned his shot from inside the box.
The national team were forced to make a substitution for the left-back position in the 29th minute when Muhammad Safwan Mazlan replaced the injured Muhammad Hairiey Hakim Mamat and Thailand capitalised on the situation to open the scoring four minutes later.
With the Malaysian defence in sixes and sevens, Thailand striker Patrik Gustavsson seized the opportunity to let fly a stiff grounder past goalkeeper Muhammad Azri.
However, with half-time beckoning, Thailand were reduced to 10 men when Jonathan Khemdee was sent off by the referee for a foul on Muhamad Syahir Bashah in the 41st minute.
After the break, it was the national team, under the head coach Brad Maloney, who controlled the game against the 10-man Thais.
Malaysia’s search for the equaliser finally ended in the 61st minute when striker Ahmad Danial Ahmad Asri was at the right place to convert a cross from skipper Muhammad Mukhairi Ajmal Mahadi into goal.
The goal spurred Maloney’s boys to go for the winner and their efforts nearly paid off when substitute Muhammad Hadi Fayyadh Abdul Razak’s header in the 82nd minute was slightly off target.
But Malaysia kept piling on the pressure and, in injury time, Muhammad Nur Azfar emerged as a hero when he scored the winning goal to give Malaysia a perfect start.
Maloney was full of praise for his boys, saying they deserved to win the match after putting on a “daring performance” against one of the best teams in the region.
“I’ve said all along that my players are not afraid to play against anybody and we respect Thailand, the giants of Southeast Asia, but we play without fear.
“These players played their hearts out for almost 98 minutes (tonight) and achieved the result,” said Maloney at the post-match press conference.
Malaysia now lead Group B with three points while Laos and Singapore, who drew 2-2 in the other match, are second and third respectively with one point each. Cambodia, who have yet to play, are fourth while Thailand prop up the standings.
Malaysia will play Laos on Wednesday (May 11), Singapore on May 14 and Cambodia two days later.