Malaysia's AFF Cup game against Myanmar a do-or-die clash
With three matches down and one to go in the group stage of the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup, Malaysia are where they expected to be in Group A. They collected six points from the opening two wins over Cambodia and Laos and then lost in Vietnam, the strongest team in their half of the 10-team tournament.
So it all comes down to the final game with Myanmar in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, as many thought it would. Unfortunately, a draw will not be enough (except in the very unlikely event that group leaders Vietnam lose heavily to Cambodia) -- only a win is sure to take the Harimau Malaya leaping into the last four.
While a final place is the official target, a spot in the semifinals will be seen as acceptable. That is because this Malaysia team, still a work in progress after some unstable years, is good enough to beat the weaker parts of Southeast Asia but have some way to go to consistently challenge the top teams in the region such as Thailand and Vietnam.
In the opening two games, Malaysia had chances and should have scored more than they managed. The team's lack of a playmaker was not a massive issue -- opportunities were created, they just were not taken. Yet against a well-organised and physical Vietnam team, Malaysia just did not have that No. 10 to make something happen. With not much to work with in the middle, Malaysia were left to count on the wide players, but they had little joy against the Golden Stars.
The question now is a simple one: Can Malaysia defeat Myanmar? In terms of traditional stature in the region, the Tigers would be expected to bring down the White Angels but things have changed. Myanmar defeated Malaysia in the 2016 edition of the AFF Cup, thanks to a late goal from David Htan, though that was on home soil.
Two years on and Myanmar have shown already that they are no pushovers, winning 4-1 at home to Cambodia and 3-1 in Laos, though they fell behind relatively early in both games before finding the goals they needed. Against Vietnam, coach Antoine Hey took a risk in making five changes -- only one forced -- for the game against the best team in the group. At times they rode their luck and had their goalkeeper to thank but came away with a 0-0 draw and the same this weekend with see them through.
Yet that may present a problem for what is still a fairly young team. Do Myanmar play for a point or go for the win? The danger for Malaysia is that the visitors will sit back and allow the hosts to come forward for the win they need and then find joy on the counter-attack.
Star forward Aung Thu was rested early in the tournament but is starting to show the skills that make him one of the best forwards in Southeast Asia. Midfielder Htan has impressed so far and was rested in Yangon in midweek. Those three are capable of causing problems for the Malaysian defence.
Even with that in mind, fans expect a Malaysia win. After three games, the team should be ready and after a week off, they should be well rested.
"We broke camp after arriving in Malaysia on Saturday and I felt the break was good for the players," Malaysia coach Tan Cheng Hoe said.
"They spent time with their families after being away for nearly a month.
"They are re-energised and are more motivated after spending time with their loved ones."
Apart from the injury issues of attacker Mohamadou Sumareh, the Harimau Malaya squad is fully fit. The African-born star would, if injury-free and in form, be the best Malaysian bet to get behind Myanmar and create opportunities.
Even if Sumareh is not ready, coach Cheng Hoe has had plenty of time and opportunity to work with the team and know his best starting XI. There may not be enough talent there to win in Hanoi but Myanmar at home should be a different matter.
If fans in Kuala Lumpur can replicate the atmosphere that was created by over 30,000 fans in Yangon two years ago, that would be a start. With 80,000 expected at Bukit Jalil, that should not be a problem. In fact, it is more likely that there will be the opposite and place a weighty burden on Malaysian shoulders.
The coach does not think so.
"Most of the players have the of experience playing in front of a big crowd, so I don't think they'll be overawed," he said.
"In fact, I think they will thrive under the pressure."
It is Malaysia's biggest game for some time and it may not be for the faint-hearted. At least the equation is simple. Win and there is a high-profile semifinal against Thailand that will be fairly pressure-free given that the Thais are tournament favourites.
Fail and the inquests will start again.