It’s crunch time.
With the AFF Suzuki Cup looming closer, the feeling amongst fans is undoubtedly mixed – the Malayan Tigers have only won three of their last 10 international fixtures and performances at senior level haven’t exactly been convincing. But at lower age groups, Malaysia has been sending shockwaves across Asia.
The U-23 boys made history by qualifying for the quarters of the AFC U23 Championships back in January, before beating a South Korean side for the first time in decades, at the Asian Games last August. Not to forget Bojan Hodak’s U19 boys, who marched all the way into the final of the AFF U19 Championships back in July, before sealing a thrilling 4-3 win over Myanmar to be crowned champions.
Malaysia’s momentum at senior level hasn’t been great, but the success of their lower-age teams mean Tan Cheng Hoe will get a taste of intense pressure when the tournament kicks off next month. And to cope with that, the 50 year-old head coach has brought his squad to Colombo, where they are scheduled to kick-start Suzuki Cup preparations with a friendly clash against Sri Lanka on Friday night.
Here are five Malaysian players to watch during this clash:
No prizes for guessing this one. Mohamadou Sumareh is on the verge of becoming the first naturalized player to don the Malayan Tiger kit. Born in Gambia, Sumareh has been based in Malaysia for over a decade now and ardent followers of the local football scene will be able to wax lyrical about his ability and what he would most likely bring to the table, as far as the national team is concerned. He’s hardworking, quick and is never afraid of taking on defenders on the right flank. But more importantly, Sumareh’s exceptional understanding with club teammate and right-back Matthew Davies, could be a key component of Tan Cheng Hoe’s set-up.
Much of Sabah’s success in the Malaysia Cup has been attributed to names like Hector Ramos and Rodoljub Paunovic, but reality is that their run to the semi-finals (as of now) is due in no small part to the form of Azzizan Nordin in midfield. The former Harimau Muda man has been ever-present throughout 2018, forming a decent partnership with Sabri Sahar at the heart of their midfield. He’s big, never afraid to dive into tackles and seems like a man capable of forming a protective membrane over the center-backs. Azzizan was handed his debut in Malaysia’s 3-1 win over Cambodia last month and a Suzuki Cup call-up looks very possible, provided he puts in a strong shift in the next couple of games.
What a year it’s been for Shahrel Fikri?! Started the season really well with PKNP FC in the Malaysia Super League, before leaving the country to join Thai side Nakhon Ratchasima, midway through the season. Things haven’t been easy for him over there – Eky, as he is fondly known, only managed to score two goals in his short stint with the Swat Cats. But the experience seems to have not only boosted his confidence, but also improved his technique and ability on the pitch. A clear example of that would be when he came on to score one goal and provide two assists to help Malaysia come from behind and defeat Cambodia 3-1 last month. As it stands, he appears to be Malaysia’s best bet for the No. 9 position.
NIK AKIF SYAHIRAN
It’s so difficult to sit down and just let past track record fuel pessimism when Malaysia continues to produce talent like Nik Akif Syahiran. Not only has he stepped up in what has been a rather turmoil-filled year for Kelantan, Nik Akif also produced the goods when it mattered the most at international level. Just over two months ago, the 19 year-old showed plenty of courage and conviction to score a 93rd minute winner that helped Malaysia outclass Myanmar 4-3 in the final of the AFF U19 Championships. He’s scheduled to play for Bojan Hodak’s side at the AFC U19 Championships later this month, but should he impress Tan Cheng Hoe, don’t be surprised to see him playing for the senior team at the Suzuki Cup next month.
Technically, Kenny Palraj isn’t the most gifted player at Tan Cheng Hoe’s disposal, but when it comes to work-rate and stamina, there aren’t many better names out there. Kenny reportedly outlasts every other Perak player at long-distance running, his versatility is an added advantage too. It remains to be seen if Kenny is offered a chance to play tomorrow, but given that Tan Cheng Hoe is primarily using these fixtures to try out fresh faces, it seems likely that the former Harimau Muda man will take to the field. Every tournament squad requires a utility player and should Kenny use his strength to his advantage, he could very well be that man for Malaysia at the AFF Suzuki Cup next month.