BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Malaysia restored some confidence ahead of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, when they beat Papua New Guinea 2-1 in a friendly match at the Shah Alam Stadium on Monday.
The visitors took the lead first in the sixth minute through Nigel Dabinyaba, but Hazwan Bakri's wonderful equaliser in the 20th minute and Amri Yahyah's 46th minute penalty gave Datuk Ong Kim Swee's men a much-needed win ahead of the biannual regional tournament.
Malaysia head coach Datuk Ong Kim Swee picked a combination of key players and second stringers to start the match. Goalkeeper Khairulazhan Khalid was picked ahead of Khairul Fahmi, while Shahrom Kalam was paired in the centreback position with Shahrul Saad. Kim Swee opted for a three-man forward; veteran Amri Yahyah, Hazwan Bakri and newcomer Darren Lok.
Despite Malaysia taking control of possession in the first five minutes, it was the visitors who found the back of the net first, in the sixth minute. A weak clearance by Shahrul only found Nigel Dabinyaba on the right of the box, and the midfielder's harmless shot was deflected into the net by Shahrul himself.
Nigel Dabinyaba celebrates his goal. Photo by Mohd Khairol Rizal / CSN Sports Talk
Malaysia still dominated possession after conceding, but their inability to dominate the midfield meant they were vulnerable to Papua's counterattacks. The pitch, damp due to the rain earlier in the afternoon, also led to both sets of players slipping on a few occassions.
However Malaysia equalised in the 20th minute, through a spectacular series of one touch passes between midfielder Irfan Fazail and Lok, that was finished with an audacious volley by Hazwan from the edge of the box.
Hazwan Bakri (right) celebrates his goal. Photo by Mohd Khairol Rizal / CSN Sports Talk
But surprisingly, when an easy chance appeared to Hazwan in the form of a layoff from the left by Lok in the 33rd minute, his shot sailed over the bar instead.
The hosts were lucky not to be punished by Papua two minutes later, when a through pass found Raymond Gunemba with only Khairulazhan to beat. The midfielder deftly rounded the custodian, but his shot only hit the sidenetting.
The first half ended 1-1.
The hosts did not need long to finally take the lead in the second half. Just one minute in, Lok was fouled by Alwin Komolong in the penalty box, and referee Alongkron Feemuechang pointed to the spot. Amri coolly sent Papua goalkeeper Ronald Warisan the wrong way, to make the scoreline 2-1. The penalty call looked to be a soft one, but the home crowd, whose turnout was better in the match due to the fact that the entrance was made free by the Malaysian FA, celebrated the lead nonetheless.
Amri Yahyah celebrates his penalty. Photo by Mohd Khairol Rizal / CSN Sports Talk
Irfan could have doubled the Malaysian Tigers' lead later when he found himself with the ball in the Papua box, but a timely last-ditch tackle stopped him from making the shot.
Kim Swee then made a triple substitution, taking off Amri, Irfan and Lok for another veteran striker and 2010 AFF Cup topscorer Safee Sali, and midfielders Safawi Rashid and S. Veenod.
Two more men was brought on after that; Norshahrul Idlan Talaha and winger Hadin Azman, along with goalkeeper Fahmi, who replaced the injured Khairulazhan, perhaps as a last-minute chance for all the players to show Kim Swee what they can do, ahead of the final cull for the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup squad.
Heavy rain fell again with 10 minutes remaining on the clock, and Papua failed to find the equaliser.
The win perhaps gave Kim Swee some breathing space ahead of the tournament, but he still has much to do before finalising his 23-man squad, and their first match in the tournament next week.
Outside the AFF Cup, this is Malaysia's first official win in six matches, and they avenged their 2-0 friendly defeat to the same side in June this year.
Malaysia : Khairulazhan (GK) (Fahmi 73'), Davies, Shahrul, Shahrom, Rizal, Irfan (Safawi 58'), Zaquan (Hadin 69'), Baddrol, Hazwan (Norshahrul 69'), Amri (C) (Veenod 58'), Lok (Safee 58').
Papua New Guinea : Warisan (GK), Joe, Felix Komolong (Roland Bala 54'), Opaiga, Alwin Komolong, Gunemba, Muta (C) (Sabua 23'), Emmanuel, Semmy (Gubag 89'), Foster, Dabinyaba.