Malaysia looks to young powerhouses in AFC U-23 Championship debut

Source: Xinhua| 2018-01-03 15:36:56|Editor: Chengcheng
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BEIJING, Jan. 3 (Xinhua) -- As one of the two dubutants reaching the finals of the AFC U23 Championship, Malaysia's head coach Ong and his young Tigers are expecting to upgrade their performance in the upcoming tournament to be held in China this month.

"It's good to qualify for the first time, and for is a matter of gaining exposure and experience," said Ong. "Whatever we do in China, we can look at the weaknesses in our game and we can learn from them."

To prepare for the tournament ahead, Ong's squad has spent two weeks in South Korea to help their players, who are from a tropical climate, get used to the cold weather in China. "This is new for the players, but they all adapted very well, and by the time we are in China I know we will be ready."

In the 2014 and 2016 qualifiers, Malaysia's U23 team kept hopes of advancing until the last game, but could not avoid elimination. Leading up to the qualifiers for the 2018 tournament, under the reign of former international defender Ong, the young tigers finished top in Group H, ahead of Thailand, Indonesia and Mongolia.

Their qualification campaign was not as straightforward as it seemed. After a stunning 3-0 victory over Indonesia in the opening game, Malaysia was defeated by Thailand by the same scoreline in the next match. The young Tigers had no choice but a win in the final group game against Mongolia, and still needed to await the result between Thailand and Indonesia.

In the end, goals from N. Thanabalan and Syazwan Andik saw Malaysia win 2-0 to go top of the group. Later, a favorable draw transpired in the other group game and Malaysia's anxious wait ended in celebrations as they booked their ticket to their first-ever AFC U23 Championship Finals.

The qualifiers have witnessed the rise of future stars on the team, including 20-year-old striker Thanabalan, Rasid and Australian-born full-back Davies who have already played for the senior national team.

With a team full of talents seeming to peak at the right moment, Ong hopes his team can extend their stay beyond the opening round. "Of course, results are always important in football, and although I can talk about exposure and performances, it is important to win. We have a mission to qualify for the next round, but we also have to be realistic," he said.

Ong and his players will face tough challenge in their debut appearance as they have been drawn in Group C with three west Asian sides: Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.