Malaysia travel to Thailand knowing an AFF Cup upset is well within their reach
Sir Alex Ferguson once reflected that one of the ways modern football differed from its predecessor was that a 0-0 first leg away result in Europe was no longer seen as a good one. The past focus on keeping a clean sheet above all else was slowly replaced by the conviction that returning home without an away goal was a cause for concern.
So it should be that Malaysia will be feeling a little happier than Thailand after the goalless first leg of the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup semifinal in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday. The Tigers fought with tooth and claw against the War Elephants, who return to Bangkok without an away goal. Coach Tan Cheng Hoe will have told his exhausted players after the game that a Malaysian goal on Wednesday at the Rajamangala means that Thailand have to score twice. The pressure is on the champions.
The 87,000 fans that watched the game at Bukit Jalil, producing an atmosphere that was surely unmatched anywhere in the world last weekend, and the millions more on television saw an almost perfect performance from Malaysia. The expectation was that Thailand would start playing sooner or later, that the quality of the champions would kick in, but it just did not happen. Credit should be given to Cheng Hoe and his players and it was given by Thai coach Milovan Rajevac.
"Malaysia played very well, they ran a lot and gave 120 percent today," said the Serbian after the match. "We never planned to be defensive.
"The Malaysians were aggressive, they attacked a lot and wanted to score. The atmosphere as well as the pitch, caused us to perform slightly below par."
Rajevac is right. Malaysia toiled tirelessly to deny the Thais time and space. Playmaker Sanrawat Dechmitr has caught the eye throughout the tournament but was frustrated in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia's four-man backline and two holding midfielders in Akram Mahinan and Syamer Kutty Abba worked and worked to harass the No. 10 and his talented teammates. Much had been written about Adisak Kraisorn and his eight goals in the tournament but all that needs to be said is that the champions did not record a single shot on target. They were lacklustre and toothless.
Malaysia, on the other had, were anything but lacklustre, launching attack after attack. Wide players Mohamadou Sumareh and Safawi Rasid matched their talent with their running and with strikers Zaquan Adha and Norshahrul Idlan causing problems with their movement, it was no surprise that the home team had 23 attempts on goal.
There was just one negative, though it is a big and obvious one: Malaysia didn't score. On numerous occasions, the team got itself into good positions but did not take advantage. The fact that just two of those opportunities were on target suggests there is a lack of ruthlessness in the team. If just one of those chances had been buried then it would have been a perfect evening.
But at least the 90 minutes demonstrated something important. It showed that Malaysia can get the better of Thailand, there is no need to give too much respect. That was what Cheng Hoe wanted, he wanted his players to have a different mindset.
"My men have to change their perception that every time we face Thailand, we think they're better than us and we need to play defensively," he said before the game.
"This time around, I want my men to take to the pitch with the confidence that Thailand are most probably going to play defensively, that we are going to have more of the ball and doing most of the attacking."
And that is what happened. It all means that Malaysia can go north (as have their fans who have organised buses up the peninsula or are taking advantage of specially discounted flights laid on by Malaysian entrepreneur and AirAsia boss Tony Fernandes) with confidence. There may not be the advantage of a lead to take with them but this self-belief should serve them well. Malaysia believe they can win this tie.
The pressure is very much on Thailand now. They will surely not be as poor in Bangkok as they were in Kuala Lumpur but if Malaysia can avoid conceding an early goal, the tension will quickly start to rise.
Then, the Tigers will have a real chance of pulling off one of the best results in their modern history.