CHIANG MAI: The healing of Malaysian football continued under new national coach Kim Pan Gon.
On Thursday, Malaysia reached the King's Cup final after toppling Thailand in Chiang Mai.
Though Harimau Malaya prevailed on penalties 5-3 after regulation time had ended on 1-1, it was a victory that would look good for Pan Gon's team.
Thailand, seen as one of the two strongest teams in Southeast Asia apart from Vietnam, had finished second best to Malaysia in their own backyard.
It will help to elevate Malaysia's world ranking as they took another step in their recovery from the disastrous AFF Cup last December in Singapore that led to the resignation of coach Tan Cheng Hoe.
Since being appointed as head coach in January, South Korean Pan Gon has been gradually getting Malaysia on the right footing. He guided the team to a spot in the 2023 Asian Cup finals and their statistics in eight games look commendable: five wins, one draw and two losses.
And this has seen Malaysia rise in the world ranking from 154 to 148. Thailand are ranked much higher, at 111. And if Malaysia beat World No 109 Tajikistan in the final tomorrow, the team will go even higher.
Pan Gon and his counterpart, Alexandre Polking, were happy with only one half but frowned about the other 45 minutes.
Part one saw Malaysia having the upper hand, playing the high intensity pressing game that was witnessed in the Asian Cup qualifiers in June. It unsettled the Thai players as Harimau Malaya won the ball early. And, La'Vere Corbin-Ong volleyed home the opening goal in the 31st minute.
Malaysia were, however, pegged back after constant pressure from the home side in the second period. And Thailand's Pansa Hemviboon nodded home the equaliser.
In the penalty shootout, Harimau Malaya kept their nerves with Ahmad Syihan Hazmi saving Supachok Sarachat's shot while all five Malaysian penalty takers succeeded with their kicks.
"It was a great performance. Mentally and physically, it was a very tough game. I think they made all Malaysian people very proud," said Pan Gon.
"This was a tough away game with a big home crowd. But in the end, we succeeded.
"We thought we could close the game 1-0 to the finish. But things like this can happen and in my 25 years of coaching, this thing has happened a lot of times.
"But I believe my players are strong enough to overcome such situations."
However, the manner in which Malaysia retreated into their shell with a "defend-at-all-cost" mentality would have alarm bells ringing in Pan Gon's ears.
He admitted that this was not the style he wanted to implement where the team just sat back after putting themselves in the lead.
"Maybe the circumstances made us drop down. They came out (in the second half) taking risks. The situation made us drop down, not our plan to do this.
"We want to develop our Malaysian DNA to attack and not drop down. That's our philosophy and we will try to correct this one."