Everything to play for in Group B
Having lifted the AFF Suzuki Cup for the first time two years ago, Malaysia will be looking to claim back-to-back crowns when they begin the defence of their title as Group B hosts this weekend.
While the group features the reigning champions, 2010 runners-up Indonesia and three-time winners Singapore, as well as qualifiers Laos, the reality is that all four have not been in the good form in their recent warm-up games, leaving them with everything to play for when their games kick off on Sunday.
However, as Malaysia themselves proved two years ago, the results of warm-up games are ultimately of little consequence as it is what a team does at the business end of the tournament that matters.
In 2010, K.Rajagobal’s side were genuine dark horses for the title and they did little to contradict that view when they struggled in their warm-up matches and were hammered 5-1 by Indonesia in their opening game. However, the lack of expectations placed on a team that featured a number of players from the Under-23 side that had won the South-East Asian Games gold medal a year earlier worked to the benefit of the Malaysians who improved and grew in confidence as the tournament went on.
They met the Indonesians once again in the final and showed none of the nervousness that had blighted their performance in the opening match as they won 3-0 in Kuala Lumpur en route to a 4-2 aggregate victory.
With a youthful squad that included 18 players aged 24 or younger, the future looked very bright for the Harimau Malaya after that victory and Rajagobal has, for the most part, retained his faith in the players from that victorious side including goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat, midfielder general Safiq Rahim, playmaker Norshahrul Idlan Talaha and star striker Safee Sali.
But with the AFF Suzuki Cup looming, the form of the Malaysians has dipped alarmingly in their recent warm-up games. Away losses against Vietnam and Thailand in early November were worrying enough but 1-1 home draws against lowly-ranked Hong Kong and Bangladesh in the past week, when late equalisers were conceded against teams reduced to 10 men, have raised real concern.
The main worry is that Rajagobal’s side have become far too predictable in his preferred 4-4-2 formation although Safiq is keen to dispel that notion.
“Despite the coach employing the same formation, I believe we can still be different on the pitch,” said the Malaysia captain.
“It’s up to the players to raise their game for the desired result. We can still have the element of surprise in the manner in which we approach each game.”
For Safiq, the key to the team’s success will be to start well against Singapore in their opening match on Sunday at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium.
“Our first match against Singapore is going to be big as it will set the tone for how we fare in the tournament,” he said. “Our keen rivalry with Singapore gives it an extra edge.
“We can’t rely on the form of the other teams to be successful in the tournament. We must look at ourselves and produce our best if we want to win.”
Singapore have had mixed fortunes at Bukit Jalil in the past 18 months. They drew 1-1 there in July last year to advance in the FIFA 2014 World Cup qualifiers but crashed to a 2-0 defeat in the Causeway Challenge in July, their first loss to their northern neighbours since 2004.
The three-time Asean champions went out at the group stage two years ago and long-serving coach Raddy Avramovic has struggled to get the best out of his players during the past 12 months which has featured heavy losses to China and Iraq in the World Cup qualifiers and dispiriting defeats at the hands of Malaysia and the Philippines in friendlies.
But a 4-0 win over Pakistan in Singapore on Monday was just the right tonic for a side badly in need of confidence ahead of their opener against Malaysia.
"This result is a real boost for us, as individuals and as a team. It will give us confidence for the Suzuki Cup,” said midfielder Hariss Harun after the match. "We're setting up well and we just have to continue what we're doing. There's still room for improvement, especially our transition from attack to defence."
Hariss, who turned 22 on Monday, is one of the younger members of a Lions squad that is skippered by attacking midfielder Shahril Ishak and features several veterans including 34-year-old defender Daniel Bennett, 31-year-old midfielder Mustafic Fahruddin, and striker Aleksandar Duric who remains a handful for defenders despite turning 42 this year.
Having finished runners-up on four previous occasions in 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2010, perennial bridesmaids Indonesia will be looking to finally get their hands on the silverware this year. However, the Merah Putih squad that coach Nil Maizar will lead during the group stage is radically different from the one that came so close to the title two years ago.
Just three players – midfielder Oktovianus Maniani, and forwards Irfan Bachdim and Bambang Pamungkas – remain from the team that played in the 2010 final as Maizar has found his selection limited by the rift in Indonesian football that has resulted in the establishment of two separate domestic leagues.
But while the squad is largely devoid of players from the breakaway Indonesian Super League, veteran Bambang has made a determined stand by putting his national team first.
“I came from my home to join the Indonesian national team training camp,” said the prolific 32-year-old striker, who plays for ISL side Persija Jakarta. “As a professional, I hope that the Indonesian football dualism ends here.
“No more two ‘national teams’ and two [football] federations. I want to support the national team that is recognized by the AFF.”
Indonesia suffered further setbacks when defender Hengky Ardilles was ruled out after he suffered a knee injury, left-back Diego Michiels was kept in police detention after he was accused of criminal assault at a Jakarta nightclub and goalkeeper Samsidar withdrew from the training camp after he signed a contract with an ISL club.
Aside from Bambang, Irfan, Oktovianus and veteran midfielder Elie Aiboy, there is not a lot of experience in Maizar’s squad but there is no shortage of talent or potential with a number of bright youngsters including midfielders Andik Vermansyah and Arthur Irawan and Dutch-born forward Jhon van Beukering likely to get an opportunity to play.
Laos complete the group after they booked their place in the Final Round with a second place finish at last month’s Qualifying Round in Yangon.
Led by Japanese coach Kokichi Kimura, the Laotians beat Cambodia 1-0 and Brunei 3-1, lost to Timor Leste 3-1 and drew 0-0 with hosts Myanmar to finish on seven points in the qualifiers. However, they were indebted to Brunei, who beat the Timorese 2-1 in their final game to give the Indochinese side a berth in Group B.
Kimura’s side enjoyed just a week’s rest before they returned to action, playing in a four-team tournament in Ho Chi Minh City that also featured Turkmenistan, a South Korean University selection and host Vietnam. While they suffered heavy defeats in all three of their games, Kimura still felt positive about his team’s participation in that event.
“We had played a lot of games in the AFF Suzuki Cup Qualifying Round earlier in October and the players did not have much time off after that so their condition was not very good in Vietnam,” he explained to affsuzukicup.com
“We did not set a high target for that competition but we took part because it is not easy for us to arrange matches against good opponents in the usual circumstances. So it was a good experience for the players before they returned to hard training for the AFF Suzuki Cup.”
Kimura is unlikely to make any major changes to his side from the Qualifying Round that was dominated by under-23 players and skippered by forward Visay Phaphouvannin, who is the oldest player in the squad at the age of just 27.
While they are long shots to reach the semi-final, they will be hoping to spring a surprise or two in Kuala Lumpur against teams that they have not previously managed to beat at the Asean Football Championship.