Malaysia opened their campaign in the 41st Merdeka Tournament by carving out a 1-0 win over traditional rivals Singapore at the Darul Makmur Stadium in Kuantan.
Despite a clinical display, Malaysia failed to make use of the chances they created against a side they had defeated 3-1 in the 2007 Merdeka Tournament.
Malaysia’s Wan Zack Haikal (No 10) is challenged by Singapore’s Muhammad Hafiz Sujad (left) and Muhammad Afiq Yunus at the Darul Makmur Stadium tonight.
The Malaysia squad had earlier received a boost an hour before the showdown with Singapore when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak spared time to meet the players in the dressing room.
But once on the pitch, the team showed they meant business and dominated the match but were guilty of squandering several chances, even to the extent of missing a penalty and taking advantage of the fact that Singapore played with a player less for most of the second half.
Coach Ong Kim Swee while happy with the three points and the performance of his players felt that his charges could have played better had the pitch conditions was not soggy.
“We could not play our normal game as the heavy pitch conditions forced us to make changes to our style. We were guilty of not making use of the chances we created but one has to understand that we only trained together for a week whereas our opponents have been together for a long time,” said Kim Swee.
“I feel we can only improve after today and it takes time for players to gel. In the first eleven there were only four players from the Harimau A squad and the others were from the states and clubs. I must credit the players for staying focussed even though we missed a penalty. Winning is always a good start and the three points matter,” he added.
The match was got off in a steady drizzle and both teams found it difficult to adapt to the heavy pitch conditions.
Malaysia’s Putera Nadher Amarhan (left) and Singapore captain Muhd Izzdin Shafiq Yacob tussle for the ball at the Darul Makmur Stadium tonight.
Singapore adapted well to the conditions as Quak Jun Yi forced Malaysian keeper Md Izham Tarmizi into a diving save as early as the second minute. Seven minutes later Quak ghosted past T. Reuben but failed to connect much to the relief of the Malaysian defence.
That awoke Malaysia from their slumber as they moved the ball onto both flanks and pumped in crosses. Skipper Mohd Irfan Fazail then tested Singapore custodian Muhammd Syazwan Buhairi in the 14th minute with a free kick from 30 meters out which was punched to safety.
Singapore nearly took the lead a minute into injury time as Muhammad Khairul Nizam burst through the middle but Izham was equal to the task as he palmed the ball out for a fruitless corner.
Malaysia came out looking refreshed and took a minute to go 1-0 ahead as Thamil Arasu burst through the left and coolly slotted the ball past an on rushing Syazwan in the 46th minute.
Malaysia was awarded a penalty in the 55th minute and Singapore reduced to 10 men, as Muhammad Afiq Yunos was red carded for handball. But Wan Zack Haikal’s attempt was a tame one and easily saved by Syazwan.
Malaysia were denied yet again in the 83rd minute as a good build-up involving Thamil Arasu, Wan Zack and Fadhli Shas saw the ball played to Putera Nadher Amarahan aka Junior Eldstal, whose shot bounced off the upright with Syazwan beaten all the way.
Though Malaysia tried to add a second, they were thwarted with poor finishing and superb goalkeeping by Syazwan.
For Singapore coach V. Sundramoorthy, the fact that he was without seven of his regulars cost them the match.
“We lacked experience and the pitch did not help matters. Both teams could not play a beautiful game and I feel that was the difference today,” said Sundramoorthy.
“We fell asleep at the start of the second half and paid a heavy price as Malaysia scored. Still I believe with a fill team we can match any team at the SEA Games.”