Loss against Tajikistan an eye-opener for Harimau Malaya

KUALA LUMPUR – After seven international friendlies without a loss, Malaysia’s defeat to Tajikistan in the final of the 2023 Merdeka Football Tournament was timely and an eye-opening experience for the national squad.

The defeat can also teach an important lesson ahead of a more challenging task when the Harimau Malaya squad start the 2026 World Cup/2027 Asian Cup qualifying campaign next month before playing in the 2023 Asian Cup in Qatar, in January next year.

Former national team manager Datuk Ong Kim Swee said the defeat at the hands of Tajikistan at home will highlight all the weaknesses that need to be improved, especially when Malaysia faces a similar opponent in the World Cup/Asian Cup qualifiers.

“For me (the defeat) is a positive thing that happened before we play Kyrgyzstan (the opening match of Group D in the qualifying round) next month. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are not much different, with more or less the same playing style and the same mentality.

“After losing to Tajikistan, we need to make sure we don’t take Kyrgyzstan lightly where if we remain complacent, they may punish us as Tajikistan did,” said the Sabah FC Head Coach when contacted by Bernama today.

Kim Swee said Malaysia and Tajikistan manifested the same character, determination and desire to achieve victory in the final, but in terms of tactics, Tajikistan was more matured as they knew when to attack and when to defend.

“For me, there are a few weaknesses that I can find in our squad in terms of feeble attempts and some recurring mistakes that caused us to concede goals,” said Kim Swee who also described Tajikistan as having the advantage of only playing in the final after Palestine withdrew.

Former national player Rezal Zambery Yahya echoed the sentiments as he felt the defeat should give a wake-up call, as well as an opportunity to improve weaknesses including the tendency to make simple mistakes in high-intensity matches.

The former manager of Kelantan FC said that the national team will face stronger teams that are well-prepared and lined up with the best players in the Asian Cup later.

“We can’t afford to make simple mistakes that will end up punishing us, our squad has come out with a better performance but simple mistakes need to be attended to so that we don’t get disappointed like in the final,” he said.

Rezal Zambery said the defensive lapses had punished the entire team, although the Kim Pan Gon-led squad appeared more dominant than Tajikistan, especially in the second half.

In the final at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil, Tajikistan’s 2-0 victory saw them clinch their first Merdeka football Tournament championship and deny Malaysia a chance to win its 13th title.

The defeat also ended Malaysia’s unbeaten record, which had five wins in the last seven games since losing to Thailand 0-3 in the second semi-final of the ASEAN Football Federation Cup (AFF) 2022 last January.

The obvious weakness of the national team in the final was in the defence, especially in the middle, besides the lack of killer instinct in the attacking machinery in front of the goal which sets the difference between the two teams.

Defensive mistakes allowed Tajikistan, led by Petar Segrt, to score two goals from the same direction, while the country’s attacking machinery not only failed to complete the opportunities presented but also to break down the opponent’s defensive wall. – BERNAMA