Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) No.1 Farizal Marlias was the biggest absentee in the Malaysian squad announced on Friday while Norshahrul Idlan Talaha returns after a year-long absence.
Malaysian coach Ong Kim Swee made 12 changes – including the return of several regulars and injection of youth – from the previous Harimau Malaya squad.
The Malaysians visit Saudi Arabia in their final World Cup qualifier group match on March 24 and host Macau in a friendly in Malacca five days later.
Ong, who was given the permanent role in January, made several surprise inclusions that indicated his eagerness to freshen up the side with young players, some of whom he had coached during his days with Harimau Muda.
Farizal, who has been splendid for the Southern Tigers this season, was a notable absentee on the list after missing the last call-up in November due to injury.
Ong decided to keep Farizal’s JDT deputy Izham Tarmizi Roslan and Kedah’s young sensation Farhan Abu Bakar in the squad while Kelantan’s No.1 Khairul Fahmi Che Mat replaced Khairul Azhan Khalid.
Khairul Fahmi was among the five regulars back in the squad after missing the last call-up due to injuries. The other four are S. Kunanlan, Fadhli Shas, Hafiz Kamal and Amri Yahyah.
Twenty-year-old Amirul Hisyam Awang Kechik’s fine showing for Kedah in the Malaysia Super League (MSL) and FA Cup was rewarded with a call-up.
Amirul had also been called-up for the Under-22 side this month but will now join the senior team instead.
Selangor skipper Shahrom Kalam, who has been an influential figure for the Red Giants in recent times, was deservingly handed a call-up while Ong also included his younger teammates Nazmi Faiz Mansor and Azrif Nasrulhaq.
Hardworking 27-year-old Kelantan midfielder Brendan Gan, who is highly-rated by Ong and his coaching staff, could make his debut against Saudi.
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Terengganu’s Yong Kuong Yong and Joseph Kalang Tie returned after a six-month lay-off but it is the inclusion of their teammate Norshahrul that raised eyebrows.
Norshahrul has not played for Malaysia since the 5-0 defeat to Oman last March and irked Ong during his first stint as caretaker coach in March 2014 when the former initially refused a call-up, only to report for duty a few days later.
He was then benched for the friendly against Philippines and later dropped from the squad altogether prior to the 2015 Asian Cup qualifier against Yemen that month.
Ong had also overlooked Norshahrul since being appointed interim coach in September but is now convinced the creative forward could help Malaysia’s cause.
Ong’s hand could have been forced considering Selangor forward Ahmad Hazwan Bakri is out injured and veteran Safee Sali is not performing.
Norshahrul and 35-year-old JDT reserve Amri Yahyah are the only forwards in the Malaysian squad.
Goalkeepers: Khairul Fahmi Che Mat (Kelantan), Farhan Abu Bakar (Kedah), Izham Tarmizi Roslan (JDT)
Defenders: Yong Kuong Yong (Terengganu), Matthew Davies (Pahang), Shahrom Kalam (Selangor), Azrif Nasrulhaq (Selangor), Shahrul Saad (Perak), Fadhli Shas (JDT), Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak (JDT), Fazly Mazlan (JDT), S. Kunanlan (JDT)
Midfielders: Wan Zack Haikal Wan Nor (Kelantan), Brendan Gan (Kelantan), Joseph Kalang Tie (Terengganu), Hafiz Kamal (Selangor), Nazmi Faiz Mansor (Selangor), Amirul Hisyam Awang Kechik (Kedah), S. Chanturu (JDT), Safiq Rahim (JDT), Baddrol Bakhtiar (Kedah)
Forwards: Norshahrul Idlan Talaha (Terengganu), Amri Yahya (JDT)
Standby list: Ahmad Fakri Saarani (Kedah), K. Gurusamy (Sarawak), Adam Nor Azlin (Selangor), Farizal Marlias (JDT), Nazrin Nawi (JDT)