Malaysia lack Asian Cup game plan, discipline under coach Vingada
Red cards, a lack of goals and no victories... Malaysia have gone from bad to worse this year, and their latest qualifying defeat leaves them teetering on the brink of elimination on the road to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
Despite bold talk from the new hierarchy about improvements in Malaysian football, coach Nelo Vingada has now overseen five winless matches, with four defeats, including Tuesday's night's 2-0 loss in Hong Kong.
Here are three thoughts on their latest setback:
1. Failure of Vingada's tactics
Knowing that Malaysia had to be positive to make an aggressive start in Hong Kong, Vingada did the exact opposite by preferring to stick with a safe 4-2-3-1 formation. It was the same approach as the reverse fixture, allowing the physically superior Dragons to impose themselves.
Syamer Kutty Abba was Vingada's best player in the opening exchanges, doing his best to shield the back four, who were all found wanting when Godfred Karikari, Jorge Tarres and Jaimes McKee came at them with pace.
Vingada's option to start with Baddrol Bakhtiar backfired, with the Kedah man no more than a silent passenger. Skipper Safiq Rahim was unimaginative and sloppy in possession until his deserved red card, and Safawi Rasid looked lost as a lone forward.
Wan Zack Haikal made a more meaningful impact than most of his teammates in his 13-minute cameo, and should have started instead. The more assured Fitri Omar also should have played at left-back in place of the hasty Nazirul Naim.
While Vingada did not have a natural forward, there was no excuse not to test Hong Kong goalkeeper Yupp Hing Fai for the whole night.
2. Players mentality lets them down again
Malaysia did not learn their lessons from the ill-tempered 1-1 home draw against the same opponents a month ago.
Without Rizal Ghazali and Aidil Zafuan, who were sent off in the Sept. 5 clash, the players vowed before the game to keep cool in tense situations. That promise went out the window as soon as captain Safiq, tasked to lead by example, got sent off for an unprovoked stamp on Daniel Cancela Rodriguez.
His red card resulted in a chain reaction, as Syamer was booked for a foul which led to Hong Kong's opener. Shortly after, Safawi was also cautioned, and replaced by a half-fit Darren Lok in the second half.
In contrast, Syria, who had Mahmoud Al Mawas sent off with the game balanced at 1-1 against Australia in the 2018 World Cup playoff in Sydney, never caved in and almost snatched an equaliser at the death. This is one of many lessons Vingada's men can derive from their war-torn Asian counterparts, who have played their "home" qualifiers on Malaysian soil.
3. New coach for 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup?
When Malaysia won their maiden AFF Suzuki Cup in 2010, Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) set the target of qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup.
When they did not make, the national body said not qualifying for the 2019 edition would be a "failure".
Rooted at bottom of Group B, with three tough fixtures against North Korea (home and away) and a well-equipped Lebanon looming, Malaysia could be staring at the same bleak predicament.
Despite failing to win any of his five matches in charge, Vingada would argue that he needs more time to adapt to a new football climate. But there is a growing concern about his short tenure, with so many cracks already emerging.
Malaysia have not won in 2017, and have scored only three goals this year. If the national body insists on keeping him, the Portuguese is racing against time to improve performances in the next three group matches, with two of them played away from home.
If Vingada can't stop the slide, Malaysia will need to assess other candidates to lead them at next year's AFF Suzuki Cup.
Nicolas Anil is a former Malay Mail and Goal.com Malaysia editor/writer who appears on BFM Radio as a football analyst. Twitter: @nicolas_anil.