Possible Malaysia XI against Saudi Arabia
Goalkeeper: Khairul Fahmi Che Mat
The Kelantan custodian is the most experienced of the three goalkeepers in the national camp and is often Ong’s pick in international matches.
Kelantan’s unimpressive showing so far this season may have led some to question Khairul Fahmi’s inclusion in the squad, but the Malaysian goalkeeping coach Kris Yong feels the 27-year-old is still among the best in the country, though Izham Tarmizi Roslan and Farhan Abu Bakar are closing the gap.
Right-back: S. Kunanlan
His versatility will come in handy for the Tigers as injury to his Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) teammate Fazly Mazlan could see Kunanlan moved to the left side of defence.
The 29-year-old plays as a right-back for the Southern Tigers but is often used as a winger in the national team since K. Rajagobal’s tenure pre-2014. Kunanlan’s work rate is an asset to the Malaysians and his bursting pace adds an option in attack.
Centre-back: Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak
This 28-year-old is among the finest centre-backs in the country and is part of JDT’s impressive back four, who have only conceded two league goals thus far.
Though Aidil has the tendency to get into rash challenges, the vice-captain’s presence and influence to the squad make him among the first names chosen when available.
Centre-back: Shahrul Saad
The former Harimau Muda star is turning out to be a rock-solid defender in the Malaysia Super League (MSL) since making a breakthrough at Felda United last season.
Having moved to Perak this year, the 22-year-old has formed a formidable partnership with Thiago Junior Aquino, leaking in only two goals in the league to date. Shahrul gets FourFourTwo’s nod as the in-form Shahrom Kalam has been away from the international scene for too long and JDT’s Fadhli Shas has not been getting much game time.
Left-back: Azrif Nasrulhaq
Pahang’s Matthew Davies did well when introduced to the international scene against Saudi Arabia last September but the young full-back did look a little sluggish in a warm-up match last week.
Azrif has been getting regular football for Selangor since last season but there is a fear of his being lethargic as observed by the coaches. If the 24-year-old can shrug off his fatigue, he could line-up on the right side of defence.
Midfield: Brendan Gan
Under-utilised by Ong’s predecessor Dollah Salleh, Gan is expected to play a key role for the Tigers as he is highly rated by the current Malaysian coaching set-up.
Gan sat in front of the back-four in a warm-up match against MK Land on Saturday and with no other natural defensive midfielders, it will be a surprise if the 27-year-old is not handed his debut against Saudi Arabia.
Midfield: Baddrol Bakhtiar
Played on the right flank at Kedah because of the recent emergence of Amirul Hisyam Awang Kechik – and that of Syazwan Tajuddin last year – Baddrol is expected to return to the heart of midfield alongside Safiq Rahim.
Baddrol was also skipper of the Malaysian under-23 side that won the SEA Games under Ong in 2011. Though initially an attacking midfielder, Baddrol showed no sign of discomfort playing deeper and his ability in accurate long-ball distribution has earned positive reviews.
Midfield: Safiq Rahim
There isn’t a better Malaysian midfielder than Safiq at present. His fine form at JDT makes him indispensable for club and country and, fittingly, he captains both teams.
Safiq, the 2016 Malaysian and AFC Cup most valuable player, is among the best in his position in Southeast Asia and currently tops the AFC Cup goal scoring charts with six goals from three matches.
Forward: Wan Zack Haikal Wan Nor
His inclusion to the national team came as a surprise as Wan Zack pipped the in-form R. Gopinathan of Selangor for a place in the national team.
While Wan Zack has not been entertaining the crowd at Kota Bahru week-in, week-out, partly due to a defensive strategy deployed by Kelantan coach K. Devan, the winger has been working hard in training and is aware of what Ong demands, considering he was groomed by the latter at Harimau Muda.
Forward: Joseph Kalang Tie
The Terengganu winger has wasted no time in settling down at the East Coast since his move from Sarawak at the end of last season.
He has quick feet to get past defenders but against the Saudis, Joseph could have more defending than attacking to do as the hosts are expected to keep the Malaysians in their own half. Joseph’s energetic run could be utilised to hassle opponents on the left flank.
Forward: Amri Yahyah
It is difficult to look past Malaysia’s very own Benjamin Button to play as a sole striker, unless he is deployed on the flanks with Norshahrul Idlan Talaha returning to line-up for the first time since March 2015.
The 35-year-old Amri is showing no signs of slowing down and being able to last a full game adds weight to why Ong should start with the JDT forward ahead of Norshahrul. The two are the only natural forwards in the squad but are not typical goal poachers, as both often drop into space in midfield.
Main Photo: FAM