The Rock returns, defence lynchpin Shahrom aims for Asian Cup

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Recalled for Malaysia after three months, Selangor captain Shahrom Kalam tells Vijhay Vick that the Suzuki Cup is a stepping stone for the Tigers but it is an important one nonetheless... 

Returning at a time when the Malaysians are doing some soul searching on and off the pitch, Shahrom Kalam’s late call-up comes as a relief after Fadhli Shas and Ronny Harun’s unimpressive display against Indonesia in September.

The central-defender has not played a competitive match since July but was drafted into the national team after being deemed fit to make the bench for Selangor’s 2-1 win over T-Team in the Malaysia Cup on Saturday.

His inclusion comes as no surprise as the Malaysian defence, already without another first-choice centre-back in retired Aidil Zafuan, were torn apart in the 3-0 defeat to Indonesia in Solo.

It’s always been an honour to play for Malaysia and I am both, relieved and ecstatic, to be back

- Shahrom

The Selangor captain however, was quick downplay his return, saying he first needs to get match fitness.

“I can’t consider myself a saviour (for the team) … those here are among the best in the country. When there are options, it means there is competition for starting places and that will ensure we are our toes,” Shahrom told FourFourTwo.

“It’s always been an honour to play for Malaysia and I am both, relieved and ecstatic, to be back.

“Physically I’m in good shape already … the knee injury is behind me now and I underwent good conditioning as well to get to this point.

“My match fitness is not there yet though but that will come as I get more games.”

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The recent retirement of several players have left Malaysia short at the back

Shahrom will battle Kedah skipper Khairul Helmi Johari, Ronny, Fadhli and Shahrul Saad for the two starting positions against Singapore on Friday and Afghanistan on October 11.

The Malaysians are expected to play one more friendly match in November ahead of the season-ending AFF Suzuki Cup.

Ong could be tempted to throw Shahrom straight into the fray in order for him to regain match fitness as the latter does not have many games remaining with Selangor.

The Red Giants play a maximum of three games – including the Malaysia Cup final should they hang on to their first-leg advantage – to end their 2016 campaign.

Tigers must aim higher

So much has been said about how success at Suzuki Cup means little if the Tigers continue to struggle beyond the region.

The nation went crazy when K. Rajagobal guided the Tigers to the 2010 Suzuki Cup, a moment that somehow revived interest in Malaysian football.

Malaysia also won the 2009 and 2011 SEA Games, establishing themselves as powerhouses within the region. Malaysia continued that upward trajectory with a second-place finish at the 2014 Suzuki Cup in front of a sell-out Bukit Jalil Stadium.

But Malaysia have only gone downhill since, especially in the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers.

To many, qualifying for the Asian is the holy grail which Malaysia should look to attain, and the unwanted streak of not qualifying for the Asian Cup on merit since 1980 is turning frustrating.

There are some who have suggested that the Football Association of Malaysia should disregard the Suzuki Cup and place the Asian Cup as utmost priority.

Shahrom, however, is having none of that despite acknowledging there were bigger things up ahead than the Suzuki Cup.

“The coming tournament is not the only thing for us … we cannot think of it as our only chance of success but at the same time, the Suzuki Cup and SEA Games is our base. We must be able to impose ourselves at this level first.

We are not here to fail. The Suzuki Cup is the target this year and next year it will be the Asian Cup qualifiers

“We are not here to fail. The Suzuki Cup is the target this year and next year it will be the Asian Cup qualifiers.

“The Suzuki Cup is also part of preparation for the Asian Cupo qualifiers so we must take it seriously too. Taking things a step at a time is important.

Players must ignore the off-field distractions

The Tigers have hogged the limelight recently for all the wrong reasons, including Johor Darul Ta’zim’s (JDT) refusal to allow their players to join the training camp early.

Already missing four key players due to retirement – Safiq Rahim, Aidil, S. Kunanlan and Amirul Hadi Zainal – Ong is facing a headache whether or not to call JDT players into the squad as they will only report for duty days before the Suzuki Cup because of club owner Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim’s disdain for the Malaysian coach and his methods.

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Shahrom does not have many games left with Selangor

Like Ong, Shahrom is also putting on a brave front and insists those in the set-up must put aside all distractions when representing the country.

“Pressure will always be there and so will criticism. We as players must handle it and stick to our cause. Three things are important… our spirit, mental strength and knowing why we are here,” said Shahrom.

“As a player, we have to put our country ahead when called up. There must be pride and dignity towards our nation, Malaysia, and no matter what the situation is, we must do whatever we can to bring home honour.”