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Indonesia and Malaysia ready for showdown

The AFF Suzuki Cup is poised for a climactic finish with fierce rivals Malaysia and Indonesia locking horns in the home and away final on Boxing Day and December 29.

Indonesia, the great underachievers of Asean football, overcame a robust Philippines side 2-0 on aggregate in their last-four clash to end the Azkals' fairytale run in the biennial event that grips the region.

The tactically astute K. Rajagobal steered the young tigers of Malaysia into the final for the first time since the inaugural championship in 1996 with a 2-0 aggregate victory over defending champions Vietnam.

A couple of goalkeeping slip-ups cost Vietnam dear in the away leg of the semi-final with striker Safee Sali scoring twice and Malaysia stood firm in the cauldron-like atmosphere of the My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi to record a famous victory.

Indonesia beat Malaysia 5-1 in their opening group game of the tournament but the scoreline did not accurately reflect the closeness of the encounter and neither camp expects a similarly lopsided result in the final.

Malaysia conceded several soft goals but the players have grown in stature during the tournament and will not be giving away any late Christmas presents in the Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur on December 26.

Indonesia will be contesting their fourth final having fallen at the last hurdle to Thailand in 2000 (4-1 in one-off final) and 2002 (4-2 on penalties after 2-2 draw) and Singapore in 2004 (5-2 on aggregate).

They met Malaysia at the semi-final stage in 2004 and after losing 2-1 at home went further behind in the return leg at the Bukit Jalil Stadium before bouncing back with four second-half goals to earn a 5-3 aggregate victory.

Having played all their matches at Fortress Jakarta, there is the danger that Indonesia will be spooked by the hostile reception that awaits them from the capacity crowd in Kuala Lumpur.

Coach Alfred Riedl will be keen for them to settle quickly and skipper Firman Utina and Muhammad Ridwan to take control of the midfield and supply the ammunition for barrel-chested hitman Cristian Gonzales, whose two strikes against the Philippines in the semi-finals took him to the top of the scoring charts with three goals.

Irfan Bachdim, the new poster boy of Indonesia football, missed the second leg of the semi-final because of injury but if fit to return his incisive running and sharpness in the box could prove crucial to the outcome.

Indonesia looked jittery at the back against both Thailand and the Philippines with 'keeper Markus Harison suspect under the high ball, a point that will have not been lost on the astute Rajagobal.

Sali has the pace and trickery to worry the Indonesian defence and given good service from Norshahrul Idlan and S. Kunanlan could be Malaysia's match-winner again.

Rajogobal knows that Malaysia need goals in the home leg but will want his young side to settle into the match before venturing forward in numbers.

'Keeper Khairul Fahmi has been a revelation since replacing Sharbinee Allawee after the 5-1 loss to Indonesia and has only conceded one goal in four matches.

Safiq Raman and Muslim Ahmad have played every minute of every game for Malaysia and Rajagobal will be looking for another 180 minutes of endeavour from the duo to stifle Indonesia's attacking threat.

It promises to be a contest for the ages with both teams looking to be crowned kings of Asean football for the first time.