PETALING JAYA: Timor Leste are no longer easy meat in South-East Asian football.
Even though the nation was mired in naturalisation controversy in the past, its football team have got past that debacle and are beginning to make progress.
The emergence of a league and also talented youngsters augur well for the small country’s footballing fortunes.
Malaysia coach Tan Cheng Hoe is aware of that and has told his boys not to be overconfident when facing Timor Leste in the first leg of the 2022 World Cup qualifier at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil.
Calling the Timor Leste team nippy and tricky, Cheng Hoe – who recently turned 51 – is aware of the prowess of some of their opponents’ young players.
“They have kept the core from the AFF Suzuki Cup. Timor Leste’s young squad have played together in many competitions from junior to senior level,” he said.
“During our video sessions with the coaches and players, we’ve identified a few Timor Leste players who can cause danger.
“Their strikeforce (Henrique Cruz, Joao Pedro, Rufino Gama and Adelino Trindade) can be dangerous. They can be quick and nippy during counter-attacks.
“They have good fighting spirit and the teamwork is always there. We have to be really watchful in these two legs.
“We cannot lose focus and our players have to show great commitment to get into the next stage.”
The quest to reach the 2022 World Cup commences with Asia being the first continent to start its qualifying campaign.
The 12 lowest-ranked Asian sides in the FIFA rankings will do battle in six pairings in the first round as winners of the two-leg contests will advance to the second round.
Malaysia, ranked 168th in the world, is the highest ranked among all the 12 teams and should fancy getting past Timor Leste.
Playing both legs in the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil, Malaysia will surely relish the home-ground advantage but with torrential rain and poor pitch conditions, Cheng Hoe hopes that his boys can still get the job done.
“In the Malaysian League, we know some pitches are not in good condition, so the players will have to be flexible and adjust to any surroundings.
“However, as a coach, I wish the pitch will be better than in the game we played against Nepal.”
He also confirmed his 23-men squad for the game, with Selangor’s Abdul Halim Saari and PKNS’ Rodney Akwensivie dropped.
Abdul Halim is unable to join the squad due to a groin injury sustained in the Nepal friendly while Akwensivie had to be released as Cheng Hoe decided to keep Shahrul Saad, Adam Nor Azlin, Irfan Zakaria and Dominic Tan as his centrebacks.
Midfielder Akram Mahinan, being one of the senior players, is honoured to guide the youngsters.
“There are lots of talented youngsters in Malaysia and it’s good to see some of them in the national team. In this kind of situation, we have to guide them to better things.
“As a team, we’re harmonious and committed. Many are celebrating Hari Raya Aidilfitri but we had to postpone our celebrations for national duty.
“No one is complaining because it’s an honour to play for the flag. Whoever plays, they have to give their 100% for the jersey.
“Timor Leste will not be easy but we will do whatever it takes to get into the next round.”