SHAH ALAM: The Harimau Malaya face a monumental task to qualify for the final of the AFF Suzuki Cup after going down 2-1 to Vietnam in the first-leg semi-final at the Shah Alam Stadium.
Backed by a capacity crowd, Malaysia even took the lead in the 14th minute through midfielder Mohd Safiq Rahim penalty kick but the determined Vietnamese fought back with goals from Vo Huy Toan in the 32nd and Nguyen Van Quyet in the 60th, to put themselves in the driver’s seat for a place in the final.
Coach Dollah Salleh made three changes to the team who beat Singapore 3-1 in their final Group B match on Nov 29.
Combative midfielder Gary Steven Robbat was dropped for Mohd Hafiz Kamal.
Centreback Mohd Fadhli Shas and winger S. Kunalan make the starting 11 to replace the suspended skipper Mohd Shukor Adan and winger Mohd Amri Yahyah.
Dollah’s decision to drop Gary proved costly as the team lacked steel in the midfield leaving the Vietnamese to out-run and out-smart the static engine room.
Despite the vociferous home support, Vietnam were the early aggressors until Malaysia got a lucky break when rightback Mahali Jasuli’s attempt outside the box was handled by Pham Thanh Luong in the box.
Skipper Safiq stepped up to tuck the spot kick away for a 1-0 lead but Vietnam showed character to double their effort and the homesters were left back-pedalling for the better part of the match.
And the visitors were duly rewarded when Malaysian goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat could only palm away a stiff shot from Van Quyet into the path of Vo Huy Toan who delightfully slammed it in for the equaliser in the 32nd minute.
Dollah’s decision to bring in Gary in the 58th minute was of no avail as Van Quyet put his side in front in the 60th minute after he bamboozled past leftback Mohd Zubir Azmi to unleash an unstoppable shot past Khairul.
The introduction of veteran midfielder Indra Putra Mahayuddin and striker Abdul Manaf Mamat towards the end of the match could not yield the equaliser leaving Malaysia a big mountain to climb when they play the second leg in Hanoi on Thursday.
Dollah was visibly upset by the defeat when he said: “Its our worst game in the competition. I don’t know what went wrong with the players.
“We were disappointing in attack, midfield and defence ... we are lucky to not concede more goals as the Vietnamese played really well.
“Our backline was the worst department as they struggled. Mahali lacked the tactical discipline and it left us exposed ... but there’s another 90 minutes to play and we will try to bounce back in the second leg.”
Vietnam coach Toshiya Miura said he was surprised with the win.
“It was a difficult match playing under a good atmosphere at the stadium but I’m happy how the team played,”said Miura.
“We conceded an early goal but the players didn’t panic and stayed focused for the whole match.”