Backs against the wall

Experience on their side: National Under-23 stalwarts Azam Azmi Murad (left) with Mukhairi Ajmal Mahadi at a training session. They were also part of the senior team for the World Cup 2026-Asian Cup 2027 second round qualifiers against Oman recently. — FAM

PETALING JAYA: The Malaysian Under-23 football team have been warned. Uzbekistan will come out with guns blazing to secure full points when they take on the Harimau Muda in their opening Group D match in the AFC Under-23 Asian Cup in Doha, Qatar, tonight.

Uzbekistan won the 2018 edition in China after edging Vietnam 2-1 in the final but they missed out on a slot for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo after losing the playoff to Australia.

Uzbekistan also reached the final in the 2022 edition in Saudi Arabia but lost to the hosts 0-2.

Uzbekistan head coach Timur Kapadze said an opening win will stand his team in good stead as they look to repeat their 2018 title-winning feat and seal a spot in the Paris Olympics.

“We came here with a concrete target to win this tournament,” said the former Uzbekistan midfielder.

“But the chance is also open to other teams. We have no injuries and we are ready for the tournament.

“We have prepared for this tournament for a long period, my players are ready and we want to achieve our target.

“Our opening match will be important. We are going for a win and we’re confident but at the same time, we will be respectful of Malaysia,” said Kapadze.

Malaysia, who qualified for the tournament as one of the four best runners-up, are realistic about their chances with head coach Juan Garrido Torres hoping that the opportunity to go up against a stronger side like Uzbekistan will serve as motivation for his players to rise to the occasion.

“We are happy to be here. We look forward to improving our past results but bearing in mind that first we have to proudly represent our country.

“Our preparations have been good despite the short period. We are excited to face a team like Uzbekistan.

“The players want to play in this competition and it’s motivating to have to go up against teams like Uzbekistan.

“We know we are going up against one of the favourites who have a very good squad. We know we must be at our best level to be competitive against Uzbekistan,” said Torres.

After Uzbekistan, Malaysia will play Vietnam on April 20 before wrapping up their Group D fixtures against Kuwait on April 23.

The top two teams in the group will advance to the quarter-finals.

Garrido will also be relieved that he will have his key players – midfielders Mukhairi Ajmal Mahadi and Nooa Laine, and defenders Azam Azmi Murad and Harith Haiqal Adam Afkar – back in his side to prepare for the AFC Under-23 Asian Cup.

The four were part of the senior team for the World Cup 2026-Asian Cup 2027 second round qualifiers against Oman recently.

The top three teams in the Under-23 Asian Cup will automatically advance to the Paris Olympics while the fourth team will go through a playoff against the African representative Guinea.

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