Eyes on the Tigers
Harimau Malaya coach Kim Pan Gon (centre) with his team at the KLIA prior to their departure to Singapore yesterday for the FAS Tri-Nations Series. PIC BY AIZUDDIN SAAD
FREE from the baggage of the past, new national coach Kim Pan Gon will attempt to put his stamp on the national team in two friendly matches against the Philippines and Singapore in the FAS Tri-Nations Series this week.
Malaysia take on the Philippines today before facing the hosts at Singapore's National Stadium on Saturday, seeking to put the horror show at the AFF Cup last December behind them.
Abject defeats to Vietnam and Indonesia led to Tan Cheng Hoe's resignation after four years at the helm with the initial optimism generated from Malaysia's encouraging display in the World Cup qualifiers before the pandemic descending into chaos amid recriminations over player selection and availability.
Pan Gon will hope to begin on the right track though history is against the South Korean as none of the previous seven national coaches had won their first international match in charge.
Hungarian Bertalan Bisckei was the last to have won his first international match as Malaysia's coach in 2004, one of just three to have done so after Jozef Venglos (1986) and Abdul Rahman Ibrahim (1999) since the FA of Malaysia made the post of national head coach a permanent one in 1983.
As important as the results of the two matches in Singapore will be to Malaysia's Fifa world ranking of No 154, equally crucial will be the national team's performance.
There were few surprises when Pan Gon announced his initial 30-man call-up list though there was an attempt to inject fresh talent into the squad.
But by leaving out Sharul Nazeem Zulpakar and Nathaniel Shio from the 25-man travelling party for Singapore, it left goalkeeper Kalamullah Al-Hafiz Mat Rowi, winger Ramadhan Saifullah Usman and midfielder Zhafri Yahya as the only uncapped players in the team.
Additionally, Pan Gon raised eyebrows when three players were handed recalls after lengthy absences from the national team.
The return of former captain Safiq Rahim, 34, is perhaps the most surprising given that the Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) midfielder made the last of his 78 international appearances in a 2018 friendly against Mongolia — Cheng Hoe's first match in charge.
He has only started one match for JDT — in the FA Cup against third-tier BRM Kuala Kangsar — this season and made one substitute appearance in the Super League, leaving his call-up a matter for debate.
Of the nine JDT players in the squad, only goalkeeper Farizal Marlias, Shahrul Saad, La'Vere Corbin-Ong and Arif Aiman Hanapi can be considered regular starters at club level, which means Pan Gon has to decide whether to base his selection on reputation or form.
Also back are defenders Ahmad Khuzaimi Piee, 28, whose sole cap came in a 1-1 draw against Afghanistan in a 2016 friendly when Ong Kim Swee was the coach, and 32-year-old Khair Jones, who made the last of his four appearances in a 0-0 draw against the Philippines in Manila in 2017 which was Kim Swee's last game in charge.
If fans were glad to see the back of Brazil-born striker Guilherme De Paula, the selection of former Kosovo international Liridon Krasniqi raised a few heckles.
Currently playing on loan from JDT at Odisha in the Indian Super League, Krasniqi left many unimpressed with his pedestrian performances in the World Cup qualifiers against the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam in June last year.
With an average age of 26.6 years, Pan Gon has a balanced squad where youth and experience are concerned, although only three players — Aidil Zafuan Radzak, Farizal and Safiq — have played more than 50 international matches.
What is certain is that the 11 players to start against the Philippines will be radically different from the side which lost 4-1 to Indonesia at the AFF Cup in the national team's last outing.
Only Belgium-based Dion Cools remains from the backline that was easily torn apart that night in Kallang, while the rest of the side could also see significant changes, with Pan Gon having far greater options than Cheng Hoe did last December.
Curiously, the last five meetings — all friendlies — between Malaysia and 129th-ranked Philippines have ended in draws, with the last four alone finishing in 0-0 stalemates.
Malaysia's 13th and last win in 20 meetings against the Philippines was a 4-0 success at the 2007 AFF Cup.
KL City goalkeeper Kevin Mendoza, one of five players from Malaysian clubs called up by Philippines interim coach Stewart Hall, will be vying with Birmingham City's Neil Etheridge to secure another clean sheet against Malaysia.
The Philippines, however, will be without VfL Bochum forward Gerrit Holtmann, who has scored four goals in the German Bundesliga this season, including one against Bayern Munich last month in a 4-2 win for Bochum, as he is recovering from Covid-19.