SINGAPORE — Malaysia may have started their AFF Suzuki Cup campaign with a victory on Monday (6 December), but they were stretched uncomfortably by a surprisingly enterprising Cambodia side in the 3-1 win at the Bishan Stadium.
Despite being ranked 16 places below the world No.154 Malaysia in the Fifa world rankings, the Cambodians were wondrously vibrant as they pressed incessantly and showed boldness in taking on the defenders repeatedly.
In contrast, Malaysia were tentative and ponderous, and had to rely on the individual brilliance - particularly from left winger Akyar Rashid - to drag them towards earning all three points.
Not surprisingly, coach Tan Cheng Hoe was calling for his side to improve ahead of their next Group B match against Laos on Thursday.
"We struggled for momentum early in the game, although we showed good character to deal with our struggles," he said after the match.
"But of course, we have to move on and try to do better in our next game."
Tough going against feisty underdogs
Malaysia had come into the tournament rated as one of the dark horses to land the Cup, following their superb 2018 campaign in which they stunned favourites Thailand in the semi-finals before finishing as runners-up to Vietnam.
In Tan, they have stability and continuity amid his five-year tenure, and talents such as Akyar and Arif Aiman Hanapi were able to rise up the youth ranks to feature in the senior national squad.
They began Monday's match eager to notch up a convincing win to get their Suzuki Cup campaign going. Instead, Cambodia were in a feisty mood as they harassed the Malaysians into repeatedly conceding possession.
Nonetheless, they were undone by their naivety in defence as Akyar earned Malaysia a penalty in the 22nd minute as he danced past several defenders before being tripped by the trailing leg of Ken Chansopheak. Up stepped playmaker Safawi Rasid, and he made no mistake with the spot kick, placing it in the top right corner of the goal.
Yet, the floodgates did not open for the Harimau Malaya, as Cambodia resumed their intense pressing game to trouble them. It was not until the 61st minute before Malaysia finally extended their lead, as Syafiq Ahmad released the excellent Akyar on the left flank, and the 22-year-old dribbled past his defender before cutting in and unleashing a stinging shot that gave goalkeeper Keo Soksela no chance.
The goal finally ended Cambodia's stiff resistance, and Malaysia added their third goal in the 79th minute, as substitute Kogileswaran Raj finished off a fine move on the right flank by Luqman Hakim Shamsudin.
Cambodia were given a chance at a consolation goal in stoppage time, when Malaysia goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi was adjudged to have raised his leg too high to challenge Sath Rosib for the ball. Rosib made no mistake with the resultant spot-kick.
"The scoreline is not good, but I was happy with my players' attitude throughout the match. I saw a lot of good work by my players," said Cambodia's Japanese coach Ryu Hirose.
Vietnam in 2-0 win over Laos
Malaysia will next face Laos on Thursday, before taking on tournament favourites Vietnam on Sunday and Indonesia on 19 December. Cambodia will next face Indonesia on Thursday, Laos on 15 December and Vietnam on 19 December.
In the evening match at Bishan Stadium, Cup favourites Vietnam opened their campaign with a modest 2-0 win over Laos, with Nguyen Cong Phuong (26th minute) and Phan Van Duc (55th) getting on the scoresheet.