Singapore and Malaysia improving but AFF Suzuki Cup comes too soon for both
Malaysia coach Ong Kim Swee must have had mixed feelings five minutes before kick-off against Singapore.
He watched as Johor Darul Ta'zim owner Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, standing a few metres away, shook hands with players who wouldn't have been there had four members of the Malaysian Super League champions not retired from international duty in July.
Perhaps the question would have been whether Malaysia would play so well that TMJ would end his ongoing feud with the national team in the realisation that the coaching staff have some idea what they are doing. Or perhaps they would play so badly that he felt sorry for them and agreed to patch things up.
In the end, it was neither. Malaysia were second best in the first half, cut open down the flanks by a committed Singapore crop from the first whistle but held their own in the second half as Singapore started to run out of ideas.
The holy trinity of exciting goalless games – poor finishing, good goalkeeper and the woodwork – came together to deny the hungry-looking Lions. The hosts were cheered on by a National Stadium that may have been short on numbers but long on chants and noise.
While it wasn't exactly a game of two halves, it was one of two meanings.
The first was as a good old Causeway Derby. It was not a classic – the first goalless draw between the two rivals for over a decade – but was entertaining.
Malaysia defended with spirit and goalkeeper Khairul Azhan Khalid was a pair of safe hands at the back. Despite starting nervously and being put under pressure for much of the match, Ong’s new-look backline held firm, kept its discipline and shape and most importantly, concentration.
There seemed to be some understanding between Shahrom Abdul Kalam, Rizal Ghazali and Shahrul Saad that bodes well.
The way that Singapore sprang out of the blocks brought back bad memories of that September evening in Solo when Indonesia were three goals ahead by the 20-minute mark. For the Tigers, such an event had to be avoided at all costs, to continue the deluge of negativity around the national team was not an option.
Singapore may not have scored but there was some genuine mobility and intelligent movement in the forward line, something that has been lacking of late.
Faritz Hameed was especially incisive with his runs down the right and the midfield had the better of Malaysia's but as Hariss Harun said after the game, it doesn't matter how good or bad the performance is, you have to put the chances away.
In the end, Singapore were left highly frustrated and not getting the goal – or goals – they should have.
Yet more important is the second meaning. Despite all the headlines and the rivalry, the main focus will be on what it all means for the AFF Suzuki Cup which kicks off next month. After watching this on DVD, will the coaches of Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam be calling in their players for extra training?
The answer is, probably not. There was nothing here to frighten the top three teams in the region – which at the moment do not include the two on display here. Malaysia showed they can dig and defend with discipline when the situation warrants it, while Singapore proved they can attack with pace and press with vigour. Yet both teams were missing creativity and, especially in Singapore's case, the killer instinct.
But it may well be that this game should not have been about the local rivalry, should not even be about the AFF Suzuki Cup but about something more than that – the future.
The tournament is coming at a bad time for both nations even though Friday brought hints that there are some signs of encouragement, small but present. If there were no high-pressure meet next month, the coaches could continue trying new players while trying to find the squad and systems they wanted.
It wouldn't be exciting for fans but it would be useful.
Competitive action changes all that especially when it comes against local rivals. There will be pressure for results and consequences for those that fail to get them. This is football but for both Singapore and Malaysia, the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup is coming a little too soon.
If there was a possibility for fans, federation and media in both countries to see the tournament as a developmental opportunity instead of something that has to be won, it could be a positive experience.
But we all know that such an attitude is as likely as TMJ, after shaking hands with all the players, going over to OKS for the biggest of bearhugs. Football does not work that way.
The AFF Suzuki Cup is coming and the pressure will be on. November 2017 would have been perfect, but November 2016 is coming too soon for these two rivals.
Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo