Asia Angle: Malaysia prepare for UAE in World Cup qualifier

John Duerden 20/08/2015
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Malaysia boss Dollah Salleh believes his side can get their qualification bid back on track.

Malaysia coach Dollah Salleh tells Sport360 that his Tigers are ready to bite back against UAE after their 6-0 World Cup thrashing by Palestine. 

Malaysia is a football-loving country. There are not many places in Asia with more passion. Super League clubs Pahang and Johor Darul Tazim are fighting out one of the most exciting title races in years, with each team regularly watched by crowds in excess of 30,000. The Malaysia FA Cup final is one of the biggest matches anywhere on the continent – 90,000 fans cramming into the Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, which boasts an atmosphere to rival the best.

Yet despite the passion and the history, the national team is ranked 168 in the world, below the tiny Pacific island of New Caledonia. It’s a number than rankles with the country’s fans, gives the media plenty to play with and is a thorn in the side of the Football Association of Malaysia. Things were not exactly great before the start of qualification for the 2018 World Cup but events in June made everything a lot worse.

A 1-1 draw against Timor Leste was disappointing but the subsequent 6-0 defeat at the hands of Palestine was devastating. That result marked a new low for a once proud team. There was some expectation that the coach would be fired as the Football Association of Malaysia summoned coach Dollah Salleh to their Kuala Lumpur offices. The bullet did not come but there is pressure, not to beat the UAE in September’s World Cup qualifier, but to show signs of improvement. There is pride at stake.

“We are looking for at least a draw in UAE,” Dollah told Sport360. “We know, of course, that the UAE are a very good team and they finished in third place at the Asian Cup but we are going there to show what we can do and show a good face of Malaysian football to the world. We know that we have not started well in qualification and we aim to get back on track.”

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One issue for the boss is that a gruelling league season is coming to an end this weekend and while that gives more time than usual with the players, fatigue could be an issue. The title-chasing teams Johor and Pahang supply a number of stars to the national team and both have been going at full pelt in the league in their struggle for supremacy. At least strikers such as Safee Sali, who come close to joining Cardiff City in 2011, and Amri Yahya are in pretty good goalscoring form.

“We know that we have not started well in qualification and we aim to get back on track” – Dollah

The one thing in Malaysia’s favour – perhaps the only thing given the opposition, travel and recent form – is that this time there is no pressure or expectation. Any result would be welcomed with open arms. Losing 6-0 to Palestine at home is something that is not difficult to improve upon.

But it could be just as bad if Malaysia allow UAE’s big stars such as Omar Abdulrahman too much time and space on the ball. Dollah claims that he is not going to man-mark the hosts’ star playmaker and one of the hottest properties in Asia. The Al Ain man was one of the standout players at the 2015 Asian Cup and has been the subject of interest from big European clubs including Manchester City, Arsenal and Sevilla in the past. Suffice to say, there is no player of his stature in Southeast Asia as a whole, never mind Malaysia.

UAE star man Omar Abdulrahman.

“We know all about him,” said the coach, smiling. “And of course, we know that he is a very dangerous player. I will not be making any special plans to deal with him or asking one player to follow him. Our players will know about him and the one closest to him will have to do something as we know we have to stop him playing his usual game as he can really hurt us. We also know that UAE are not just about one player as they have many dangerous players. If we focus too much on one, then the others can hurt us.”

The Malayan Tigers are wounded. Fans back home hope this means they will come out fighting in Abu Dhabi. There is now no expectation to finish in the top two and move to the final round of qualification – it is about restoring a once proud reputation, as Dollah noted: “It is going to be a very tough game but this means that it is also a good chance to show our pride.” 

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Messi, Neymar and Suarez make Barcelona favourites again

Andy West 20/08/2015
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Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar will lead the line for Barcelona once again.

Can anyone stop Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar?

Considering the stupendous performances delivered by Barca’s front-three in the second half of last season, which resulted in the Catalans winning everything, that question is by far the biggest to ponder as we head into the new La Liga campaign.

Barca are not, of course, just a three-man team, with players such as Dani Alves, Ivan Rakitic and Gerard Pique also playing a fundamental role in their phenomenal success last season. But the front three were simply unstoppable, rapidly establishing a mutual understanding which allowed them to make the very most of their awesome individual talents and register an outlandish combined total of 122 goals – even though Suarez didn’t play until late October.

There has already been an early indication that this season will be no different, with Barca somehow managing to overcome a series of wretched defensive mistakes to win the UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla solely thanks to their star forward line, with Messi and Suarez either scoring or assisting all five goals.

While Barca will be hoping that the new campaign delivers more of the same, it has been a summer of change in the capital city as their two main rivals – Real and Atletico Madrid – seek to up their games.

At the Bernabeu, incoming boss Rafa Benitez has a mighty task on his hands to effect a greater level of consistency than his predecessor Carlo Ancelotti could achieve. The quality of Real’s squad is without question, but the question which Ancelotti was never fully able to resolve was how to mould them into a smoothly functioning team unit. The challenge of accommodating so many gifted attacking players into the same team, especially when many of them like to operate in similar areas, will stretch even the refined tactical brain of Benitez.

Ancelotti’s oft-repeated but rarely resolved quest for balance will continue under the new coach, who will find patience in short supply from supporters sceptical about his appointment in the first place.

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Specific questions that Benitez will have to solve are where Cristiano Ronaldo will line up, which two of James Rodriguez, Isco and Gareth Bale will play and where, and how to carry out the necessary work in defensive midfield whilst still fielding his Galactico forwards.

A few miles down the road, Atletico boss Diego Simeone is overseeing a significantly changed squad following an intriguing summer.

Atletico’s new strike force of Argentine rising star Luciano Vietto, proven Colombian goalscorer Jackson Martinez and last season’s sensation Antoine Griezmann looks mouth-watering, with old hand Fernando Torres also available to shake things up when required. If Simeone can succeed in allowing his forward line to express themselves without losing any of the organisation or defensive prowess for which Atletico are renowned, they might just launch another serious challenge.

Atletico star man Antoine Griezmann.

Elsewhere, Valencia and Sevilla will hope to pounce upon any weaknesses exhibited by the big three but both face tough campaigns for different reasons.

Sevilla have lost some key players, with the departure of striker Carlos Bacca hitting especially hard, and although they have recruited serious quality in the form of Yevhen Konoplyanka, they will find it tough to maintain the consistency needed to threaten the top three. The same applies to Valencia, who made enormous strides last year under Nuno but could suffer from second season syndrome as they look to make the necessary improvements to become contenders.

At the bottom, Eibar are overwhelming candidates for the drop after a fortunate reprieve thanks to Elche’s financial demotion, but a widespread parity in (lack of) spending power should ensure the rest of the division is extremely competitive.

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Al Ahli off to AGL flyer after Fujairah victory

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Ah Ahli in superb form in their first game.

Al Ahli’s mission to reclaim the Arabian Gulf League crown began in rampant fashion as they put shell-shocked Fujairah to the sword on opening night.

The Red Knights slumped from champions to also-rans last term, a chronic lack of goals impinging their domestic hopes. These worries appear to be over, striker Lima getting a brace on debut, Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro doubling up and the excellent Ismail Al Hammadi gaining a hat-trick to help secure an 8-1 mauling.

“It was a good start for us,” coach Cosmin Olaroiu said. “In the second part of last season, we scored 13 goals and now we’ve scored eight in one game. 

“It is only three points, we have to remain calm and not think we are better than we are.”

The Wolves could not live with the hosts on a steaming night in Dubai, their wish to gatecrash the top six in their second-successive season in the top flight appearing a pipe dream on this evidence as they disintegrated.

“I am very disappointed about what happened,” coach Ivan Hasek said, enduring a miserable return to Rashid Stadium after being in charge from 2007-09 and 2011 . “After the second goal, my team collapsed.”

Champions Al Ain and rivals Al Jazira could not have failed to notice this incredible victory against respectable opposition, the result also providing a perfect boost for Wednesday’s AFC Champions League quarter-final, first leg at Iran’s Naft Tehran.

But coach Olaroiu was keen to insist he was not interested in laying down a marker to his side’s domestic rivals.

He said: “We don’t want to send any message to anyone, we are satisfied what we done and now we move forward.”

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With such firepower in their team, the Red Knights can quickly consign a miserable 2014/15 campaign which featured just 35 goals and a seventh-place finish to the past.

Coach Cosmin Olaroiu deserved credit for taking the leashes off his side, ditching the Middle East’s ubiquitous 4-2-3-1 formation and pairing goalscorer Ahmed Khalil with the €7 million summer buy from Benfica up top to dramatic effect.

They were quick out of the blocks, UAE midfielder Habib Fardan striking the crossbar on 11 minutes before UAE winger Al Hammadi tapped in from an angle soon after when after Lima’s shot was saved.

Fujairah’s resistance was twice more broken before half-time. Centre forward Khalil – who only struck a paltry five times in the AGL last term – broke free out wide and curled home, before Al Hammadi headed in during injury time from Lima’s scooped cross.

Ahli began with a bang after the interval, playmaker Everton Ribeiro  – fresh from Brazil’s Copa America squad – fired in a daisy cutter from 30 yards. 

The stage was then set for the Rashid to hail a new hero. Lima rocketed into the roof of the net to wonderfully open his account on 55 minutes, prior to placing home a more-prosaic second from close range.

Al Hammadi then scored on the rebound for a second time with five minutes left to gain the match ball and make it 7-0. 

A helter-skelter injury time saw Lebanon forward Hassan Maatouk gain scant consolation for the visitors, dribbling through to strike an excellent goal into the bottom corner. 

Madjid Bougherra then tugged back Ribeiro in the penalty box, the latter stepping up to see the rejuvenated Red Knights finish off a remarkable evening in fitting style.

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