Time for Harimau Malaya to come out of the shadows

KUALA LUMPUR – Don’t go down without a fight, Harimau Malaya!

After an unimpressive run in round two of the 2022 World Cup/2023 Asian Cup qualifying campaign, local football fans chanting that slogan were yet again let down by the disheartening performance of the national team under coach Tan Cheng Hoe.

A 4-0 loss to Jordan in yesterday’s Tier 1 international friendly clearly showed how the national team’s performance, which was gradually improving throughout 2019, has deteriorated since the COVID-19 hit the world early last year.

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The Harimau Malaya have failed to come out of the shadows.

The last time these two teams met, Malaysia had their full complement of first-choice players and lost by a slim 1-0 margin to Jordan in a Tier 1 friendly at the National Bukit Jalil Stadium in August 2019.

In any case, the current team who trooped out for yesterday’s friendly only to get a 4-0 hiding from Jordan at the King Abdullah II Stadium in Amman cannot hide behind the lame excuse of not having the pillars of strength from first-choice players.

Three national team stalwarts – captain Mohamad Aidil Zafuan Abd Radzak, midfielder Muhammad Nazmi Faiz Mansor and striker Guilherme De Paula – from the squad who beat Thailand 1-0 in the 2022 World Cup/2023 Asian Cup qualifier in June, were unleashed against Jordan yesterday.

However, a clear lack of understanding in midfield and defence presented Jordan skipper Odai Al-Saify with the chance to slot home their second goal in the 42nd minute after Ali Olwan had put them ahead in the 34th minute.

Ali went on to complete his hat-trick with two quick-fire goals in the 47th and 49th minutes.

The Harimau Malaya attack, led by De Paula, must also share the blame for not only failing to trouble their world number 93 rivals but also for not creating any goal-worthy chances upfront.

If the excuse of lack of stalwarts is to be entertained, it would point to a wide gap between the players who usually donned the national jersey and those who trooped out onto the pitch yesterday.

That assumption at once begs the question of whether the national squad are actually short on talented players capable of performing at the highest intensity against a higher-ranked team.

The second question that crops up is whether the national squad have been over-dependent on a fixed core to the extent of having denied the opportunity for other players to stand out and, thus, be the cause of the group of players failing to perform well at the highest level?

Although various questions arise, in the end Cheng Hoe, who has been given the mandate to raise the team’s standard, knows better what he is doing.

After Jordan, world number 154 Malaysia will complete their series of Tier 1 international friendlies by taking on Uzbekistan (world number 84) at the Amman International Stadium on Saturday (Oct 9).

After seeing his team’s muted performance against Jordan, Cheng Hoe will have to muster his best XI to face Uzbekistan by weighing all aspects, including the prospect of giving his younger players a run to shape national fortunes in the near future.

Simply put, it’s time for the Harimau Malaya to come out of the shadows.

A fine showing against Uzbekistan will surely boost team morale as the Harimau Malaya squad will then compete in the 2020 AFF Cup in Singapore in December, before continuing the mission to hunt for a slot in the 2023 Asian Cup Finals in the third round of their qualifying campaign next year.