2014 Asian Games Review: South Korea U23 3 Malaysia U23 0
South Korea have often been used as a yardstick by Malaysian fans, from evenly-matched teams in the mid-to-late 19th century, their steady footballing success over the years contrasts greatly with Malaysia’s stagnation. James Wong’s winner against the South Koreans in the 1980 Olympics’ pre-qualifying tournament remains one of our most memorable goals, but our footballing progress has been going in opposite directions since.
Malaysia have met the 2014 Asian Games hosts four times in the Asiad’s football tournament, emerging triumphant only once, winning 3-2 in the second round of the 1974 Games in Tehran thanks to a brace by Harun Jusoh and another by Ali Bakar. That campaign ended with a bronze medal, the best Malaysia have ever done.
Fast forward 40 years, the two teams met again in the opening game of the 2014 tournament in Incheon. As hosts, South Korea targeted the gold medal, while Malaysia planned to reach the quarter-finals, an improvement of their last Asiad campaign in Guangzhou, where they fell to Iran in the last 16.
That goal seemed even more ambitious at the final whistle. Malaysia had lost 3-0, but that result flattered us. Much of the match was one-way traffic, but the national team’s defence deserves credit for holding out for so long. Was this a simple case of being outclassed by a superior team? Or were there other reasons for this poor result?
The wrong over-age player dropped?
Football at the Asian Games is an Under-23 event, but teams are permitted to include three over-age players in their squads. Coach Ong Kim Swee chose to bring along JDT captain Aidl Zafuan, Kelantan midfielder Brendan Gan, and Terengganu forward Nor Farhan Muhammad. However, one could argue that the player he let go might have made a difference.
Eight days before the tournament, OKS axed five players from his squad, including the other over-age player in contention, PDRM striker Bobby Gonzales. Nor Farhan was preferred to the Sabahan “because of his versatility. Apart from being a centre-forward, Norfarhan can also play on both flanks”, said coach Ong in The Star. An understandable decision, as the Harimau Muda A have always been stretched extremely thinly on the wings.
Wan Zack Haikal, Wan Zaharulnizam Wan Zakaria, D. Saarvindran, and Syahrul Azwari – these are just four of the wingers ruled out by injury. OKS also dropped youngsters Ridzuan Abdunloh Pula and Mohd Faizat Ghazli from the squad, leaving him with just Sarawak’s Ashri Chuchu as a natural flanker in the squad. Sure, Fandi Othman and Azrif Nasrulhaq can play there as well, but they are usually utilised as full-backs.
As such, Nor Farhan should have been one of the side’s main players, particularly as he’s the oldest one in the squad, with international experience from his time with the national senior team and Kelantan’s AFC Cup campaigns. Unfortunately, he had a poor game, failing to make much of an impact.
Nor Farhan and Bobby are different kinds of forwards, which makes comparing them a fairly redundant exercise. But the latter does have something different to offer, a predatory instinct that saw him score 12 goals this season (and set up many more) in an uber-attacking PDRM side that popped them in for fun. On the other hand, Nor Farhan netted eight times in the M-League, a decent return for someone who is often deployed as a winger or as a second striker.
Arguably, Malaysia could have used both of them. While most of the other countries at the Asiad spread their over-age players over the three main outfield positions, others bucked the trend in search of goals. Iraq brought along 2007 Asian Cup winner striker Younis Mahmoud, the MVP and joint-top scorer at that tournament, while India chose to fill their quota with three forwards.
Too lightweight in attack?
While OKS’ predecessor, K. Rajagopal chose Norshahrul Idlan Talaha for the 2010 edition (in which he scored twice), Malaysia arrived in Incheon without an over-age striker. In fact, they only brought two under-23 ones – Ahmad Hazwan Bakri and Ferris Danial – after fellow forward Thamil Arasu was ruled out with a back injury suffered in a pre-tournament friendly against Yemen.
Fresh from a good run in Selangor’s first team, Hazwan should be in exciting form, having accumulated three goals and two assists in the Malaysia Cup group stages. Against South Korea, he was supported by club-mate Nazmi Faiz Mansor from an attacking midfield position, who constantly tried to tee up Hazwan but failed. Both attackers have quicker minds than they do feet, and they found it difficult to break out of a midfield dominated by the South Koreans.
It must be noted that Hazwan had Malaysia’s first chance of the game on the half hour mark, with a half-volley from a corner that had goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu diving at full stretch to save. However, he became increasingly isolated as the match wore on, and was eventually replaced by Nazirul Naim, a defender, fulfilling OKS’ earlier prediction in The New Straits Times that he may play without a striker towards the end.
South Korea started the match with three over-age players who were part of the senior team’s 2014 World Cup squad – Kim Seung-gyu, Park Joo-ho, and Kim Shin-wook. If that wasn’t enough, their starting XI included two players based in the Bundesliga (Hoffenheim’s Kim Jin-su and Mainz’s Park Joo-ho), one in the J-League (Sagan Tosu’s Choi Sung-keun), and one in the Chinese Super League (captain Jang Hyun-soo, who plays for Guangzhou R&F). On paper, the Koreans were already a stronger side than Malaysia.
Coach Ong recognised the gulf in class between the two sides and planned accordingly, telling The Star: “On paper, South Korea are more superior. We can only play to our strength. So, when it comes to competitions like this ... it does not matter how we play because what matters is the end result. People remember only the score ... not how they played. We will do everything possible to frustrate South Korea. Nothing is impossible. We have been working on our defensive discipline. But that does not mean we will defend for 90 minutes. We will look to hit them on the break."
Gan deployed in the wrong position?
Against South Korea, half-Australian Brendan Gan made his competitive debut for Malaysia, and his midfield partnership with Junior Eldstal showed promise, particularly in the first half. However, he set himself up quite deep, either to carry out OKS’ strategy, or as a consequence of South Korea’s superior possession. This is somewhat reflective of his usual role with Kelantan, where he’s a designated defensive midfielder, but often charges forward in a box-to-box role. Unsurprising, as Brendan spent most of his years as an attacking midfielder, even as a winger during his time in Australia.
Kelantan gaffer George Boateng once told FFT that he played Brendan as a defensive midfielder because “nobody in my team can play as good as him in the position”, high praise indeed from one of the Premier League’s best (retired) midfielders. Confined to his own half against the South Koreans, expect Brendan to cover more ground and utilise more of his attacking prowess in the next game against Laos.
On the whole, Malaysia held out well enough to frustrate superior opposition, but the true test will come on Wednesday against Laos, perceived as our best chance for points in a difficult group that also includes Saudi Arabia. Aidil and Gary might return to the line-up by then, but if the forwards do not step up their game, a quarter-final spot at the 2014 Asian Games might just be another pipe dream.
(Photos Credit: www.asiana.my)