Tiger tough: Five young defenders Malaysia should call on
The aging centre-back pairing of Shahrom Kalam and Ronny Harun used at the Suzuki Cup underlined the frailties Malaysia are facing defensively. They have to start grooming younger options, especially if the Tigers have any hope of qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup.
The Asian Cup qualifiers start next march, two years before the tournament proper commences in United Arab Emirates.
An expansion from 16 to 24 teams has given Malaysia hope, but the Tigers will still need to dig deep. They are currently 29th in Asia based on the FIFA World Rankings.
Shahrom and Ronny, 31 and 32 respectively, are still Malaysia’s best bet for central defence following the international retirement of Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak, but they will be in their mid-30s come 2019.
Such is the state of development in the country that even 37-year-old Shukor Adan was approached to make a Tigers comeback several months ago. Shukor was among the best local defenders in the 2016 Malaysia Super League (MSL) season.
It was plain for all to see that Shahrom and Ronny were no match for the pace of opponents at the Suzuki Cup, with experience and a collective defensive approach required to help pull them through.
The Tigers have already blooded young full-backs in the likes of Rizal Ghazali, Matthew Davies, Fazly Mazlan, Azrif Nasrulhaq and Nazirul Naim Che Hashim, but the heart of defence needs refreshing.
Shahrul Saad, 23, has been introduced to the squad but he is arguably the only young option ready to be called upon.
Fadhli Shas, who at 25 is the most experienced option available with over 50 appearances, suffered a tremendous dip in form in 2016 and has done little to show he warrants a place in the squad, let alone the starting line-up.
Here are five options that present some hope for the future.
Captain of Frank Bernhardt's Malaysia under-22 side, the former Harimau Muda C defender has led by example, showing commitment and determination for the national juniors.
Faris also worked his way into the Kelantan senior squad, thanks to injuries largely, but he made an impression and could see more action in 2017 as the Red Warriors' financial troubles mean new coach Zahasmi Ismail could be forced to turn to youth.
The 21-year-old could benefit from regular matches and catch the attention of Tigers coach Ong Kim Swee.
The former Singapore Sports School student is just 19 and seen by many as the future of Malaysia’s defence.
He captained Malaysia under-19 last year and is expected to be a core member of Malaysia’s 2017 SEA Games squad. Tan has yet to truly establish himself in Bernhardt’s squad after being left out in initial friendly matches, but his time at Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) could help his growth if given the right exposure.
His performance with JDT II saw him moved to JDT as first-team cover in the mid-season transfer window this year. If Tan can get matches under his belt, he could be line for a full international call-up soon.
The Swedish-Malaysian is the oldest player on this list and isn’t really a defender, but that is where his future perhaps lies.
Injuries have prevented Eldstal from making a lasting impact from the time he left England to sign for Sarawak in 2013. The 25-year-old has never shown genuine pace and that could curtail his future in midfield.
Eldstal already has games under his belt as a central defender at JDT and for Malaysia during K. Rajagobal’s tenure. If he could stay fit and get back into contention at JDT, Eldstal could find himself back in the Tigers squad too.
The lanky defender has gained a lot from Malaysia Premier League (MPL) exposure at UiTM this season.
The former Harimau Muda C player moved to UiTM after the youth development programme was scrapped by the Football Association of Malaysia and continued to impress at the university side, thus earning Bernhardt’s trust ahead of Tan.
Adib was also named in FourFourTwo’s Nations Cup Best XI in June.
Wan Ahmad Amirzafran Wan Nadris
Among the players who will miss out on the 2017 SEA Games due to the age limit change from 23 to 22, Amirzafran still has a lot to do if he is to make the Tigers squad.
Amirzafran, who turns 22 in December, was among the names mentioned by some when suggesting Ong take younger defenders to what turned out to be an ill-fated AFF Suzuki Cup campaign, but in truth he was even behind Faris in the pecking order.
The former Harimau Muda defender tends to be rash at times, something he needs to work on if he is to be called up to the national team. A good season for T-Team next year will surely do his prospects well.
Main photo: asiana.my