Twin terrors throttle toothless Tigers

Twin terrors throttle toothless Tigers

By Darren Goon (follow Darren on twitter @Box_to_Box)

“Even the best laid plans of mice and men, go oft awry.” The vagaries of sport are such that for all one’s preparation and strategies, there are just too many variables to consider.

Teerasil Dangda celebrates his goal against Malaysia

Clever set-piece routines! Inspiring substitutions! Mid-game tactical changes! Coaches and managers can do their best, but there is a limit to their influence over a game. Players can step up or fall down, but sometimes the individual who changes the game is the one person who’s supposed to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Refereeing is a thankless business. Do your job properly, and nobody notices, as that is the minimum expected of you. Nary a word of praise is sung, and although reliable referees are chucked the opportunity to take charge of bigger, more prestigious games, their world can come crashing down if they have a dreaded off-day at work (refer to Frisk, Anders, and Clattenburg, Mark).

This brings us to the second leg of the AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final between Thailand and Malaysia. With the tie finely poised at 1-1, Thailand needed just a scoreless draw to progress to the final on away goals. Oddly enough, it seemed that Malaysia were the side more content to play for a draw.

But it wasn’t all K. Rajagopal’s fault. Safee Sali wasn’t 100% fit and could not be risked on the bobbly surface of the Supachalasai Stadium, and so the coach decided to pack the midfield to nullify Thailand’s strength in the middle of the pitch. A 4-5-1 formation was the result; with S. Kunalan joining Azamuddin Akil on the flanks, yet the whole was not equal to the sum of its parts. Malaysia were insipid and predictable, which was not to be expected of a team fielding three attackers behind lone striker Norshahrul Idlan Talaha.

Shorn of Safee and the effervescent Wan Zack Haikal, it was unusual that Malaysia’s main attacking threat was full-back Mahalli Jasuli, who had two assists and a goal in his two previous games. The War Elephants responded with Anucha Kitpongsri and Theeraton Bunmathan (both of whom are equally adept at playing as full-backs or wingers) taking turns to pin Mahalli back in his own half.

It was obvious that Rajagopal was trying to hit Thailand on the counter-attack. Captain Safiq Rahim sat deep, looking to spring Norshahrul on the rare occasions when Malaysia regained possession, but Thai captain Panupong Wongsa stopped anything from getting past him, forcing Norshahrul to drift to the wings in order to get away from his marker. Although he’s a very capable striker, Mat Yo lacks the pace to get in behind the defence, and Thailand’s back four were able to push higher up the pitch.

If the gaffer’s strategy was to invite pressure, it was working. Thailand dominated midfield, with only a combination of poor finishing and Farizal’s agility keeping the match level. Malaysia were hanging on for half-time. Safee warmed up by the touchline, knowing that he’ll have his chance in the second half.

Referee Lee Min-Hu had an inconsistent first-half, booking Fadhli Shas and Mahali early on for some soft challenges, while Aidil’s tackle from behind on a Thai player went unpunished. Two minutes before half-time, Datsakorn Thonglao and Fadhli rose for a header. Fadhli came off holding his shoulder, and Datsakorn, nicknamed “Ko”, confronted the Malaysian, who responded with the meekest of shoulder nudges. Hardly violent conduct, but an off-the-ball incident nonetheless. Referee Lee judged it to be a yellow-card offence for both parties, and promptly sent Fadhli off.

Ironically, Rajagopal had prepared for this exact scenario. Malaysia faced the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) in a pre-tournament friendly, where Raja left Fadhli out and played with ten men, linking Aidil Zafuan with defensive midfielder Amar Rohidan instead. Malaysia won that game 4-0, but this was a semi-final against the mighty Thailand, three-time winners of the AFF Cup. Hardly a square peg in a round hole, Amar acquainted himself well, but on the hour mark, he miscontrolled a header by Panupong, letting in Teerasil Dangda, arguably the star of the tournament so far, to score the opener.

Five minutes later, it was all over as Farizal parried a Jakkraphan Pornsai free-kick into the path of Theerathon. Malaysia’s fatigued defenders were slow to react, and the Buriram United wing-back buried his chance, as well as any slim hope Malaysia had of making it to the final.

Amar was immediately replaced, and Safee was brought on to make up the two-goal deficit. The rest of the game was a mere formality for the Thais, and it was only Farizal’s great goalkeeping that prevented this from becoming a rout.

And at the other end of the pitch? Kawin Thamsatchanan had to make his first real save of the match in the 80th minute, which aptly summed up the Tigers’ lack of bite. Needing a goal, Malaysia paid the price for playing too cautiously, and the champions exited the tournament after losing 3-1 on aggregate.

Yes, the sending off changed the game. Yes, Malaysia gave a good account of themselves up to that point. Nevertheless, there is no disputing the fact that over two legs, Thailand played very well and fully-deserved to go through. Their players also proved to be gracious winners, giving the traditional Thai “Wai” to the Malaysian bench after the game, before lining up to shake the hand of a disheartened Rajagopal.

“I was waiting for the right time to bring on Safee to steal a goal, but the sending off changed everything.” Ah, Raja, some things are just not within our control.

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