The 2017 SEA Games medal hopefuls got a taste of each other at the four-team Nations Cup in Malacca last weekend, with powerhouses Thailand walking over their opponents. Vijhay Vick noted some observations…
Don’t be fooled, Thailand are miles apart
The 2-1 Thailand win over Malaysia may have suggested it was a tight affair, but in truth – something the fraction of fans who actually turned up can testify to – it was a one-sided affair. Worrawoot Srimaka must be wondering how his charges did not win the match in a more comfortable manner.
Thailand were more superior in most departments against Vietnam and Malaysia and only the absence of clinical finishing prevented them from running riot in both matches.
The Thais are defending champions and with their national teams – all age-group included – grabbing attention with impressive displays, the War Elephants look all set to win a record 16th football gold medal in Kuala Lumpur next year.
Having qualified for the final round of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, there are even talks of Thailand not sending their best players to the AFF Suzuki Cup come end of the year.
Such is their superiority that the War Elephants will still be considered favourites for the senior team competition nevertheless.
Malaysia’s promise to go higher
No match to the Thais yet but Malaysian coach Frank Bernhardt reckoned his men will compete “at the same level” next year.
Having gained some admirers in the four matches he took charge since coming on board at the start of the year, the German is keeping his fingers crossed that he is able to form a full-time team like his predecessors Ong Kim Swee and Rajagobal, Malaysia’s only winning coaches in over 20 years.
Bernhardt expressed confidence that his side could make the cut and that they only lacked strength and fitness – two areas where the Thais have excelled in – and is expected to spend a lot of time rectifying this over the next year.
S.League exposure not enough?
The Singapore squad, with a core of players coming from development side Young Lions, should have really done much better.
Eight of the 11 that started against Malaysia came from the Young Lions squad and while they did control the match at times by moving the ball well, a squad that plays regularly in the S.League really should have put the Malaysians under more pressure and not buckle at the back, at the very least.
Their performance begs the question: is the S. League a suitable competition as preparation. After all, the current Malaysia head coach Ong Kim Swee did withdraw his Harimau Muda squad in 2013, citing the S.League was not competitive enough?
The SEA Games will be exciting
None of the four teams that competed at the Hang Jebat Stadium brought a full strength squad, for reasons ranging from injuries, domestic obligation to international duty.
Singapore did not have their highly-rated Fandi brothers – Irfan and Ikhsan – who are undergoing their national service.
Vietnam were here to test players out and Malaysia did not have the services of Matthew Davies, Amirul Hisyam Awang Kechik, R. Kogileswaran and S. Kumaahran.
Yet the matches were exciting and if this was anything to go by, spectators at the regional games are in for a treat when these teams lock horns again.
Myanmar, who will include a core of their 2015 Under-20 World Cup squad, and Indonesia will also join the battle.
Room for improvement
With one year to go before the big one, all teams have room for improvement and so does the tournament.
The Nations Cup was well handled and there were barely glitches (in public at least) during the three days but the crowd turnout was nothing but horrendous despite attracting some of the best players in the region.
Barely a third of the stadium filled up despite the cheap tickets, prizes and a mammoth of a final between the hosts and mighty Thailand.
Perhaps, it was the location of the competition as the senior team also did not attract a crowd for the Asian Cup qualifying playoff against Timor Leste in Johor Bahru.
Other reasons for the poor turnout include this being the school holidays, the start of the fasting month and late kickoffs.
The Nations Cup could have allowed more substitutions, as the competition’s true purpose was to give the teams a battle ground to test and gauge themselves.
Bernhardt voiced his frustrations at this and FourFourTwo understands the Malaysians made a “late” request for more substitutions.
Photos: Nations Cup