Asia Angle: Malaysia prepare for UAE in World Cup qualifier

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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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