Malaysia must waste no time in putting nightmare Asian Cup return behind them

If being back in the big time had been a dream come true, it did not take long for Malaysia‘s first AFC Asian Cup since 2007 to evolve into a nightmare.

Three goals down to Jordan inside the opening 32 minutes, Malaysia’s opening game at the 2023 edition of Asia’s premier international tournament was effectively over as a contest.

They steadied the ship a little after that although much of that also has to be attributed to the opposition taking the foot off the pedal — but a comprehensive and humbling 4-0 loss was the worst possible way to start their Group E campaign.

As is the case with tournament football, Harimau Malaya have little time to wallow and lick their wounds with their next game in five days against Bahrain — and that could actually be a positive.

They simply have to put this result behind them if they are to salvage anything from their campaign.

Of course, barring a minor miracle, even the most optimistic of Malaysia supporters probably would not be expecting them to get out of the group stage.

The luck of the draw was not kind to them. In Jordan, Bahrain and South Korea, they are up against formidable opposition.

Still, there are creditable displays that can be produced and, unfortunately for them, Monday’s was far from it.

Returning to the highest echelon of continental football after such a prolonged absence was always going to present its challenges, yet Malaysia did not look overawed by the occasion but simply seemed to have been completely caught out by the pace at this level.

Malaysia coach Kim Pan-Gon, who deserves plenty of credit with what he has achieved with the team since taking over in 2022, curiously opted for an adventurous 3-4-3 system.

Still, it was not so much about the formation, setup or even the high line, which — in hindsight — bordered on the incredulous, but the fact that Kim simply chose players that were perhaps unsuitable for the approach.

On paper, Junior Eldstal and Dion Cools were both savvy selections in countering Jordan’s strength and aerial presence but neither are the quickest off the mark.

With the two of them — and Matthew Davies — stationed almost at the halfway line, Jordan simply kept lasering passes into the 50 yards or so of free space behind them.

Time and again it led to dangerous openings and eventually Jordan’s pressure proved unbearable.

Mahmoud Al-Mardi opened the scoring in the 12th minute with a fine long-range effort and then added a third shortly after the half-hour mark, while Musa Al-Taamari converted from the spot after more last-ditch defending by Malaysia from once more being exposed handed their opponents a penalty.

It could even have been 4-0 at halftime were it not for the intervention of VAR.

With Jordan content to consolidate their advantage, Malaysia did get to play a little in the second half but barely caused the opposition any real concerns until the introduction of a couple of substitutes.

Paulo Josué stung the gloves of Yazid Abu Layla late on before Safawi Rasid also forced the Jordan custodian into a smart save with an equally-ferocious effort, succeeding in offering some sort of threat in a matter of minutes late on where Malaysia had failed to do so for the previous 80.

Yet, as if to deliver one final reminder as to where the game plan failed on Monday, Jordan once exposed Malaysia’s flaw one final time for their fourth in the 85th minute.

As a searching ball was played over the top of a static and forlorn Eldstal, Al-Taamari effortlessly glided onto it and calmly held off the desperate but ultimately-futile efforts of the recovering Cools to score his second of the evening.

Kim has plenty to ponder, primarily if he should persist with this setup and lineup going forward.

It could work against Bahrain but it would almost will not against the South Koreans, who have no shortage of players both capable of delivering a killer pass, as well as tearing in behind defences.

Personnel changes will possibly be on Kim’s mind as well.

For his lack of recent competitive action that started from a couple of disappointing overseas loan moves to Portimonense and Ratchaburi, Safawi remains one of Malaysia’s most-gifted players — with genuine match-winning ability and a big-game mentality.

Defensive changes are also available to Kim and, even if he sticks to his guns, there are quicker options for the high line at his disposal.

Then again, perhaps the best thing for him and Malaysia is to not think about Monday’s nightmare at all — and simply put it behind them and head into their next game on a clean slate.

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