Malaysia's AFF Cup campaign off to a good start, Vietnam to provide better test
Malaysia coach Tan Cheng Hoe said before his side's Monday game against Laos that "we know that there are still improvements to be made." Which certainly showed as the hosts were made to sweat in their 3-1 victory over Laos on Monday.
It was a frustrating night in some ways but, at the end of it, the Harimau Malaya have maximum points from the opening two games.
The tough tests start now however. After the 1-0 win in Cambodia and the home victory over Laos comes a trip to Vietnam and then a final home game with Myanmar.
The groundwork has been done for a trip to the knockout stage but there is still work to do. The game with Laos may not have been spectacular but it was an intriguing tale of two opposing coaches. Tan made a statement by going for an extremely attacking line-up. There was no doubt what he was looking for and it was goals, lots of goals. Even when falling behind to an early free kick, spectacularly fired into the top corner by Phithak Kongmathilath, the men in yellow did not panic and stayed patient.
Well, not completely patient. After a quick equaliser, Malaysia had to wait until the very end to get the two goals that brought victory. There were plenty of chances and it was starting to look like it was not going to happen as frustration levels grew. Norshahrul Idlan Talaha scored the only goal of the opening game in Cambodia and then netted two more in the closing stages.
Once again, the issue for the coach was one of missed chances. In Phnom Penh, Malaysia should have wrapped the game up long before full-time instead of taking a narrow 1-0 win. The same was the case in Kuala Lumpur.
"We need to be more clinical during games," Tan told ESPN. "In international football, you have to take your chances and that is something we have to work on."
With five minutes remaining however, it was still 1-1. That scoreline would have been vindication for Laos coach V Sundramoorthy. The former Singapore international coached his country's side for the last AFF Cup and had something of a torrid time in the hot-seat. He is a conservative coach and perhaps more comfortable in taking over at one of the region's smaller countries.
The former Swiss-based midfielder likes to keep things tight and he was appointed just last month to make Laos harder to beat. He knows Malaysia well and would have been delighted with a draw in Kuala Lumpur. He almost got one.
Perhaps it is for the best that Malaysia that the wins were more narrow than they should have been to stop fans getting carried away. As it stands, the hard-fought victories in what are, on paper, the easiest games in the group, mean that there is a realisation that there is still work to do. Malaysia are lacking a little in creativity and need to find a successor to Safiq Rahim as soon as possible.
The defence has not had much to do in both games so far but that means that lapses in concentration -- especially early in the game -- have almost been very costly. The big test for Malaysia comes next.
A trip to Hanoi to take on Vietnam is a tough task at the best of times, but when the Golden Stars are looking to win the tournament and are full of confidence, then Friday is going to show just how good the Tigers are.
Tan is not going to be able to go as gung-ho against Vietnam as he was in the first two games. His men will have much less of the ball, which means they have to use it much better. It also means that there are going to be far fewer chances that the forwards will have to make use of whatever comes their way.
But the two wins from the first two games do not just give Malaysia confidence, they remove some of the pressure for the trip north. A win would be a fantastic result but a draw would be more than satisfactory.
Whatever happens, Malaysia hold their fate in their hands. The final Group A game comes against Myanmar, 4-1 conquerors of Cambodia on Monday, in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 24. If Malaysia get the right result then they will progress to the last four -- despite the target of making the final -- that would be a good tournament.
Malaysia are moving forward but don't yet have the look of champions. Vietnam will show just how close, or far away, they are.