AFF Cup: Time for Harimau Malaya to stand up and be counted

YANGON – Now that the thrills and spills of the FIFA Qatar World Cup are over, local football fans can turn their attention to the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Cup 2022, which kicks off today until Jan 16 next year.

So, will the Harimau Malaya roar with delight come Jan 16, 2023 or will they exit with a whimper in the group stage?

There is no doubt that every Malaysian will be rooting for the Harimau Malaya to repeat the feat they last achieved in 2010 when they defeated Indonesia 4-2 on aggregate in the two-legged final.

Since their sole triumph in 2010, Malaysia have endured a roller coaster ride – finishing runners-up in 2014 and 2018 and crashing out in the group stages in 2016 and 2021.

Since they last lifted the Cup, four coaches have tried – and failed – to get the job done and, so, it’s now up to South Korean Kim Pan Gon to prove that he has what it takes to guide Malaysia to end a 42-year wait to qualify on merit for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup next June.

Malaysia, who have been drawn in Group B, will begin their campaign against Myanmar in Yangon tomorrow (Dec 21), before taking on Laos at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil (Dec 24), Vietnam in Hanoi (Dec 27) and completing their group fixtures against Singapore (Jan 3) in Bukit Jalil.

Theoretically, world number 146 Malaysia should have no problems getting into the semi-finals since only Vietnam are ranked higher than them at 96th, with Myanmar ranked 158th, Singapore 160th and Laos 187th.

But we’ve all seen how world ranking was thrown out of the window at the Qatar World Cup when the likes of Morocco, Japan and South Korea dumped teams ranked higher than them.

Having said that, the Harimau Malaya had better not underestimate their Group B opponents as the team Pan Gon will be taking into the tournament this time are filled with many newcomers, besides the fact that Malaysia do not have a very good track record against two-time winners Vietnam and four-time winners Singapore.

In fact, the Harimau Malaya have yet to beat Vietnam – six defeats and one draw – in any tournament in the past eight years, besides also looking for their first win over Singapore after three matches since 2014.

Looking at the fixtures, Pan Gon’s men must win their opening two matches against Myanmar and Laos if they are to go into the games against Vietnam and Singapore with confidence.

On paper, at least, it is not impossible for Malaysia to repeat their 3-0 win over Myanmar in Bukit Jalil in 2018, but the national team have always found Yangon a nightmarish venue.

In their four meetings here since 2008, Malaysia have lost three times and drawn once, which is good news for coach Antoine Hey, whose Myanmar team this time will be a mixture of youth and experience.

Among the Myanmar players who Malaysia have to watch out for are young winger Hein Htet Aung, who played for Selangor FC in the Super League this season, as well as their strikers such as Win Naing Tun, Aung Kaung Mahn and Naing Zin Htet.

But it’s not all that bad actually as Myanmar have not really shone of late, having failed to notch a single win in Group F of the 2023 Asian Cup Qualifiers in June and being hammered 6-0 by Thailand in a recent friendly.

Malaysia, meanwhile, have enjoyed the best preparation for the AFF Cup when they underwent three weeks of intensive centralised training and carved up two wins – beating Cambodia 4-0 and the Maldives 3-0 – in Tier 1 international friendlies recently.

So, it’s clear that not only will a win over Myanmar tomorrow help them end their jinx in Yangon, but it will also be the best tonic for the Harimau Malaya to kick off their campaign on a high. – Bernama