Saudi Arabia vs Malaysia: Can the visitors avoid another away drubbing?

World Cup Qualifiers | King Abdullah Sports City | Thurs 24 March | 8.30pm local time (1.30am Malaysian time) 

Billed as

Damage limitation exercise.

The lowdown

It is Malaysia’s last match in the 2018 World Cup qualifier and there is simply nothing but pride to play for as Ong Kim Swee’s men are destined to finish fourth in Group A and last among the eight fourth-placed teams due to a poor goal difference.

The reverse fixture of this clash drew attention after it was called off late into the match due to crowd violence, which led to FIFA dishing out a one-match ban and 40,000 Swiss Francs (then RM180,000) fine. The home fans had vented their frustration at football officials in the country following a 10-0 loss to United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Abu Dhabi the week earlier – Malaysia’s biggest defeat in history.

Yet, the Tigers managed to hold off Saudi for the longest time in Kuala Lumpur and even took the lead in the 70th minute, only for the visitors to reverse the score within six minutes. The score stood at 2-1 in favour of Saudi Arabia when it was abandoned in the 88th minute. FIFA awarded a 3-0 win to the visitors.

While the Malaysians have shown some form of resilience at home since Ong took charge last September, results away from home have not changed. An Ong-led Malaysia fell 6-0 to Palestine on their travel in November but days later, they limited UAE to a 2-1 win at an empty Shah Alam Stadium.

READ ALSO: Malaysians need to overcome “phobia” of conceding goals

Saudi Arabia are expected to go all guns blazing as a big margin win will virtually guarantee top spot in Group A. The Green Falcons have a three-point lead at the top over UAE with two games left to spare. The two teams lock horns at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium next week.

Team news

The Malaysians were forced to make two late changes to the squad after in-form Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) duo Fazly Mazlan and S. Chanturu picked up knocks in the AFC Cup last week. Chanturu went on to play for the club over the weekend after taking an injection, sparking a club vs country debate.

Fazly was expected to start against Saudi and his absence could see S. Kunanlan return to the left-back role. Kunanlan plays at right-back for JDT but is often used on either flanks in the national team.

Photo: FAM

Junior Eldstal, who guarded the back-four so well when Saudi Arabia visited KL, is out injured but Australian-born Brendan Gan is an adequate replacement.

Ong will also have a decision to make on Norshahrul Idlan Talaha as the Terengganu striker only recovered from a hamstring injury last week.

READ ALSO:  Brendan Gan’s impending debut

The Tigers will face at least three new players in the Saudi line-up as Abdulla Aldossary, Yasyn Alnakhli and Salman Muwashar did not make the squad.

Key battle: Mohammed Al Sahlawi vs Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak

Aidil has been in good form for the Southern Tigers, forming a solid partnership with Brazilian Marcos Antonio, but the centre-back has not faced an opponent in the calibre of this Saudi striker.

Al-Sahlawi, a top marksman at Al-Nassr, is the top scorer in the Asian zone World Cup qualifiers with 10 goals, five of which came against a weakened Timor Leste side in November.

Aidil will have his hands full as he not only has to keep close tabs on Al-Sahlawi, but also command his teammates in the back-four.

The coaches

Ong has taken charge of Malaysia seven times but the match against Saudi marks the start of his two-year tenure after being handed the role permanently in January. He had served two terms as interim coach.

The former Malaysian under-23 and Harimau Muda coach is eager to rope in young blood into the squad, most of whom are likely to be players he groomed at youth level. However, the 45-year-old will also rely on experienced heads such as skipper Safiq Rahim, S. Kunanlan, Khairul Fahmi Che Mat, Aidil and evergreen Amri Yahyah.

His opposing number, Bert van Marwijk needs no further introduction. The Dutchman, who took Netherlands to the World Cup final in 2010, has been tasked with getting Saudi Arabia into the World Cup in 2018.

Facts and figures

  • Malaysia conceded 22 goals in three travels to the Middle East in 2015 – Oman (six), UAE (10) and Palestine (six).
  • Malaysia have only beaten Saudi Arabia once – a 3-1 win in the 1984 Olympic qualifiers. The Green Falcons have defeated Malaysia four times and drew twice since that loss.
  • Saudi Arabia have scored 25 goals and let in three in the competition, as compared to the Malaysians, who have scored three and conceded 28.

FourFourTwo prediction

Saudi Arabia 3 Malaysia 0:  It will be a question of how well Ong’s charges defend.

Main Photo: FAM