Malaysia vs Timor Leste: Can the uninspiring Tigers find their mojo?

2019 Asian Cup Qualifying Playoff | Larkin Stadium | Thurs June 2 | 8.45pm

Billed as

Pressure mounting on Malaysia

The lowdown

Both teams are desperate for a place in the third and final round of Asian Cup qualifying as without it, the AFF Suzuki Cup will be their only competitive football until 2019.

Timor Leste held Malaysia to a 1-1 draw in Bukit Jalil in the World Cup qualifiers last June, but under new coach Ong Kim Swee, the Malaysians won the reverse tie 1-0 in Dili in October.

On paper, the Tigers should have a field day against a side that has long been a minnow in the region. However, the inclusion of several Brazilian-born naturalised players in the Timor Leste squad has given their opponents concern in recent times.

Coupled with the fact Ong’s men have not scored in three matches – including against Macau, a team then ranked the second worst in Asia back in March – a tight match is on the cards.

Both legs of the tie take place at Larkin Stadium, giving a sense of familiarity for the Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) players in the team, but there are concerns over how some players tend to perform excellently at club level and simply fail to rise to the occasion in national colours.

A loss in this round of the playoffs does not mean the end of the world as the losers get a second chance (or third if you consider the current round a bonus) at reaching the final Asian Cup qualifying stage.

Yet defeat will further bury an  ailing nation, which has plunged new depths since the departure of successful former coach K. Rajagobal in 2013. Passage to the qualifying stages at this round would allow the Tigers to concentrate on the year-ending AFF Suzuki Cup, where Southeast Asian countries gets to test themselves against new powerhouse Thailand.

Malaysia's skipper remains in doubt

Team news

Skipper Safiq Rahim is still doubtful having failed to train since he reported for national team duty last week. The 28-year-old is a key player in the squad, explained by the very fact he remains in it despite having not played since the FA Cup final on May 14.

Brendan Gan was left out of the draw against Myanmar on the weekend, but has been training with the squad and could make the starting 11. He adds more agility to the midfield compared to Junior Eldstal, who provides more of a physical presence. Ong could have a decision to make on who to field as playing both in midfield could take away some elements of creativity, which is already seriously lacking if Safiq doesn’t play.

The visitors have recalled their Brazilian flair after omitting them for the last three games amid a complaint to FIFA by Palestine and public displeasure that the national team prioritised foreigners over those born and bred in the county.

At least four naturalised players – including Sarawak’s Junior Aparecido – are expected to take the field in Larkin after featuring in their 2-0 loss to Cambodia on Sunday.

Player to watch: Baddrol Bakhtiar

He had a poor game against Myanmar but this is where the Kedah stalwart needs to prove himself on the international stage.

With Safiq in doubt, Baddrol will need to draw from experience and step up to the occasion. The 28-year-old is the most capped central midfielder available for selection in the squad and needs to be at his creative best to solve Malaysia’s attacking woes.

Baddrol had been under utilised by previous national team coaches but is held in high regard by Ong, who gave him the captain’s armband when Malaysia won the 2011 SEA Games in Indonesia.

Facts and figures

  • Amri Yahya and co. have not found the back of the net in three matches, extending a dismal run in front of goal that stretches back to the start of last year. Malaysia only scored seven goals – which includes three against Laos – in 11 matches in 2015
  • Timor Leste have conceded 27 goals in their previous four matches, but three of those games were without their Brazilian flair and two came against Asian powers UAE (8-0) and Saudi Arabia (10-0), both in November last year.
  • Amri, 35, is the only Malaysian striker in the current squad to have scored an international goal since 2012. He has scored seven during this period.
  • Both sides have bleak recent form overall. Malaysia have only won twice in 14 matches, while Timor Leste have lost seven of their last nine.

FourFourTwo prediction

Malaysia 1 Timor Leste 0: Keeping a clean sheet could be important ahead of the allotted ‘away’ tie four days later and the Tigers may end up taking a cautious approach.