Laos 1 Malaysia 4
Kuala Lumpur – Safee Sali put his woes in front of goal behind him as Malaysia got the defence of their AFF Suzuki Cup title back on track with a 4-1 win over Laos at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium on Wednesday.
The 28-year-old striker, who was the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals two year ago, squandered a number of chances as the Harimau Malaya toiled to break down the Indochinese side for three-quarters of the game.
But his 67th minute strike opened the floodgates as Wan Zack Haikal Wan Nor and Khyril Muhymeen Zambri added late goals to seal a much-needed win for the Group B hosts who moved up to three points, one behind leaders Indonesia and level with Singapore although they trail the Lions on goal difference.
Captain Safiq Rahim had given Malaysia the lead with a 15th minute free-kick only for Khonesavanh Sihavong to equalise for Laos against the run of play six minutes before the break.
Malaysia coach K. Rajagobal had promised to make changes to his side after their dismal 3-0 loss to Singapore in their opening game and he kept to his word by making four alterations to his starting line-up as Khairul Fahmi Che Mat was replaced in goal by Farizal Marlias and Mahalli Jasuli, Shakir Shaari and Wan Zack Haikal came in for Bunyamin Umar, Amar Rohidan and Khyril.
He was understandably delighted with the application shown by his side as they sought to bounce back from their opening loss.
“I told the boys that I wanted them to play with aggression, and with a high tempo and with intensity and we started well and got the goal that we needed,” said Rajagobal.
“We were pressing them and we could have killed the game as we had four or five chances to score but then we made a mistake, gave the ball away and they scored.
“Both teams could have scored after that but we got an important goal from Safee which demoralised our opponents and that broke open the game.
“It was a tough game but it is over and now we want to focus on our next match against Indonesia.”
With the Malaysian Ultras creating a raucous atmosphere, the home side dominated the early exchanges but the misfiring Safee wasted two good opportunities, dragging a shot wide in the 10th minute and then being denied by goalkeeper Sengphachan Bounthisanh two minutes later when he tried to sidefoot S. Kunalan’s cross into the net.
The home side did not have to wait long to open their account though as they were awarded a free-kick in a central position 25 metres from goal in the 15th minute for a foul on Norshahrul Idlan Talaha. Safiq had failed to hit the target with his deadball attempts against Singapore but he made no mistake this time, curling a brilliant effort past Sengphachan into the top right corner of the net.
Malaysia passed up several opportunities to extend their lead before half-time. Norshahrul took out three defenders with a mazy run in the 27th minute before he fed it to Safee who fired wide from a narrow angle.
Two minutes later, a through ball was played to Norshahrul on the right channel. He outpaced a defender but dragged his shot wide of the far post.
It seemed only a matter of time before the hosts would get their second ut against the run of play, Laos got back on level terms six minutes before the break.
Khampheng Sayavutthi spotted Khonesavanh in space on the left and played it to winger who did not have much of an angle to work with but saw his shot deflect off the sliding Aidil Zafuan Radzak and loop over the head of goalkeeper Farizal into the net.
The home side were stunned and unable to fashion a response before the break but they nearly regained the lead 20 seconds into the second half when Kunalan’s cross from the left was headed over by Norshahrul.
Safee’s woes continued as he was presented with another good opening two minutes later after a lay-off by Safiq but fired his first-time shot straight at Sengphachan.
Safee would be guilty of another big miss shortly after the hour when he was picked out unmarked in the six-yard box by Mahalli Jasuli’s cross but headed wastefully wide.
But he finally ended his goal drought in the 67th minute when Wan Zack Haikal broke clear on a counterattack and squared for the unattended Safee to fire past the helpless Sengphachan.
The Laos goalkeeper made an excellent save to stop a header by Aidil but Wan Zack Haikal put the game beyond doubt when he rose above the Laotian defence to head in a deep cross from the right in the 76th minute.
The goal appeared to take the fight out of Laos and substitute Khyril Muhymeen Zambri made it 4-1 when he accelerated past the tiring Laotian defenders before slipping the ball past Sengphachan.
For Laos coach Kokichi Kimura, the superior fitness of the Malaysian players was ultimately the difference between the sides.
“We didn’t have much stamina at the end of the game and Malaysia was very strong with good individual players,” said the Japanese.
“But I am proud of my players because they never gave up and I thought that they played well for most of the game.”