Malaysia stand between Thailand a fourth successive AFF Suzuki Cup final, with Saturday’s semi-final first leg likely to provide the War Elephants’ sternest test of the tournament so far.
The Harimau Malaya advanced from their group with a straightforward 3-0 victory over Myanmar last weekend and will provide a much tougher test than they might have done a year ago when morale was at rock bottom.
Much has been made of the hostile atmosphere at the Bukit Jalil stadium and its passionate fans. But if Thailand focus on their game on the pitch, they should be more than capable or returning home with a win or a draw to leave them firm favourites ahead of the second leg.
Here are five things to look out for the in the Malaysia Vs Thailand match.
- Birthday boy Supachai’s star on the rise
Supachai Jaided came into the tournament, with most considering him a squad player – perhaps someone who could come on as an impact sub.
Four games and three goals later, it seems unimaginable that the Buriram United striker will not start in Malaysia on his 20thbirthday.
After a man-of-the-match performance against Singapore last week, Supachai dismissed the suggestion that the atmosphere in the Bukit Jalil might intimidate the visitors. Coming from a player who has proved that he has the temperament to handle the big occasions, this is no surprise.
The home side will certainly be making plans to contain the physical threat of Thailand’s emerging star but it would be no surprise to see him find the net again and leave his mark on the Malaysian defence.
- Time for cool heads again
During Thailand’s only game away from the Rajamangala Stadium, they lost their composure in the face of the Philippines’ aggressive game plan and were lucky to escape with a point.
Now, the stakes are higher and they cannot afford a repeat. The match against the Azkals came after a tiring journey and was played on a poor surface in a ramshackle stadium in front of a small crowd.
Things will be very different in Kuala Lumpur which may suit the Thai players, with many used to big occasions.
In the 3-0 over Singapore last week, the Thais responded very well in the face of the Lions’ very physical approach, with Nurul Sriyankem, in particular, targeted for some rough treatment. This time, the War Elephants kept their cool and it was their opponents who lost the psychological battle as well as the match.
Playing in front of close to 80,000 home fans will be a big test for several players so they need to make sure they keep their minds on the game and not the atmosphere.
- Time for Malaysia to step it up
While Malaysia can justifiably approach the game with confidence, having won eight times in 2018 after a winless 2017, closer scrutiny shows that they have lost the only games when they have been truly tested.
Victories over the likes of Sri Lanka, Laos and Maldives may have been confidence boosters, but Malaysia have lost at home to Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan, while Vietnam eased to a win against them in the group stage of this year’s AFF Suzuki Cup.
Expectations have risen as a result of Malaysia’s improved form, but the visit of the defending champions on Saturday represents a genuine examination of just how far they have come in the past year under Tan Cheng Hoe.
- Thailand should play to win
Given Malaysia’s recent record, there is no need for Thailand to have any fear of their rivals. They should give them the respect they deserve as any semi-final opponent should be but they should not overestimate them.
There may be a temptation to play for the draw as this would still leave Thailand in a strong position ahead of the second leg in Bangkok. But even without their four overseas-based stars, this Thailand side should still be capable of winning both legs of this tie.
Photo Credit: FA Thailand
A victory would not only take them very close to the final, it would also reinforce Thailand’s position as the team to beat, after their indifferent performance in the Philippines highlighted their weaknesses.
- The Spirit of 2014
The last time Thailand travelled to Malaysia for an AFF Suzuki Cup clash, they returned with the trophy. It was a pivotal moment for the Thais as they proved to be the best side in the region for the first time in 12 years.
The game did not quite go as the Thais planned. The visitors led 2-0 from the first leg of the final but Kiatisuk Senamuang’s young side fell 3-0 behind and looked like blowing their big chance.
However, the fighting spirit of the Thais came through and late goals from Charyl Chappuis and Chanathip Songkrasin turned things back in Thailand’s favour and won them the silverware.
Thailand will not want the same drama this time around and they will not want to lose 3-2 as the Thais did that night. But they will want to demonstrate the same spirit as the team from 2014 and go on to replicate their success by lifting the trophy for the third time in a row.