Palestine vs Malaysia: Can Harimau Malaya turn the tables?
The Malaysians were expectant the last time they played Palestine, only to be on the receiving end of an embarrassing 6-0 hiding at their own Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur back in June.
This time around the spotlight leading up to the match has been on the location. Palestine were supposed to host Saudi Arabia on November 9 and the Malaysians a week later in Hebron despite the two countries raising security concerns.
FIFA initially decided the matches would proceed as scheduled before an about-turn, telling Palestine Football Association last week they must be held on neutral ground after the Palestinian government confirmed it could no longer guarantee safety.
That decision was welcomed by the Malaysian camp, which had earlier expressed concerns over the potential trip to Hebron. Making full use of the change of venue, Harimau Malaya flew to Jordan last Friday – six days before the match – to acclimatise to the cool conditions.
Harimau Malaya are a different proposition to the team Palestine whipped in June. Caretaker coach Ong Kim Swee, brought in after Dollah Salleh resigned following the 10-0 loss to United Arab Emirates (UAE), has steadied the sinking ship to some extent – overseeing their first two wins of the year in October.
The Tigers are fourth in Group A with four points, two behind Palestine, who drew 0-0 with Saudi Arabia on Monday. The Saudis lead the group with 13 points, followed by UAE on seven, although the latter have a game in hand. Timor Leste are bottom with just two points.
The Malaysians must get something out of this match if they harbour any hopes of reaching the Asian Cup final qualifying round without having to go through the playoffs.
The eight group winners and next best four teams move into the World Cup qualifying third round and assure a place in the 2019 Asian Cup. The remaining four second-placed teams, third-placed teams and four best fourth-placed teams enter the Asian Cup final qualifying round. Remaining teams enter the playoffs.
Results against the fifth-placed teams do not count because Indonesia’s ban left the groups imbalanced. This means Malaysia’s four points will mean nothing if Timor Leste finishes fifth. Malaysia presently have the worst record among fourth-placed teams because they have not collected points against the top three and have a minus-19 goal count against them. Anyway you look at it, they face an uphill battle with just three matches remaining.
The Malaysians were forced to make seven changes to the squad that faced Laos and Timor Leste last month. Options are running thin in midfield after Nasir Basharuddin, Hafiz Kamal, Azamuddin Akil, S. Kunanlan and Baddrol Bakhtiar all pulled out.
Ong had earlier recalled Gary Steven Robbat to replace Nasir, but the Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) midfielder picked up an injury after the Southern Tigers’ AFC Cup win on October 31.
Ong is likely to field an untested midfield combination of Safiq Rahim and Ismail Faruqi, who made his first appearance in three years last month, while Shahrul Saad could be tasked with guarding the back four. Though naturally a centre-back, the former Harimau Muda player has impressed in the holding role for Felda United in the Malaysia Super League and Malaysia Cup this year.
Veteran striker Safee Sali, who at 31 years of age is still Malaysia’s best bet up front, is suspended for the tie. Another seasoned forward Amri Yahyah could lead the Malaysian attack in Safee’s absence as 24-year-old Ahmad Hazwan Bakri has not shown his potential on the international stage yet.
Player to watch: Safiq Rahim
The Malaysian skipper needs to produce his absolute best in national colours. He took the blame after the previous defeat to Palestine, but has proven at club level he is among the best in the region.
Safiq scored four goals in JDT’s AFC Cup-winning campaign and was crowned the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. He was also the top scorer at the AFF Suzuki Cup last year.
With regulars Baddrol, Hafiz, Robbat and Junior Eldstal not in the squad, how Malaysia fare in this fixture could depend on whether the 28-year-old brings his best form.
Facts and figures
- Malaysia’s back-to-back wins against Laos and Timor Leste were their first on the trot since the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup group stage. They have not won three in a row since the 2008 Merdeka Tournament.
- Palestine haven’t won since that 6-0 defeat of Malaysia in June, drawing their last three fixtures.
- A non-starter, Christie Jayaseelan is Malaysia’s top-scorer in 2015 with just two goals. Amri is the only player in the present squad to score this year.
- Palestine’s only defeat in the qualifiers came in a 3-2 loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening match in early June.
Palestine 1 Malaysia 1: The visitors are showing signs of improvement and morale is on the rise after a torrid first nine months of the year.
Main photo: Football Association of Malaysia