KUALA LUMPUR: National coach Kim Pan Gon believes his Harimau Malaya squad are on the right track for next year's Asian Cup.
Yesterday, Malaysia were edged 3-0 on penalties by world No 109 Tajikistan, after a 0-0 draw in regulation time in the King's Cup final in Chiang Mai.
Despite the defeat on penalties, the World No 148 can stand tall as they managed to match a higher-ranked team.
In an earlier match, Pan Gon's side defeated world No 111 Thailand 5-3 on penalties after a 0-0 draw to reach the final.
Malaysia earned valuable points for the two draws (after 90 minutes) and are expected to move up to No 146 in the latest Fifa world rankings.
The performances in both matches indicate that the Malaysian players are progressing and on the right track to match the best teams in the continent at the Asian Cup, all thanks to Pan Gon, appointed coach in January, replacing Tan Cheng Hoe.
Pan Gon said Malaysia deserve to be ranked higher in football.
Harimau Malaya were ranked world No 111 in 2001 but dropped to No 174 in 2017 following poor results.
"We must improve our Fifa ranking. I think being world No 148 is not realistic. I challenged my players to prove their worth against higher-ranked teams here, and they did just that against Thailand and Tajikistan," said Pan Gon after the King's Cup final.
"They showed progress in both matches. We should aim to be more competitive against higher-ranked teams. That is the target for the next few years.
"We must catch up with other teams and improve our ranking. We should be on par in terms of ranking with teams like Thailand and Tajikistan.
In the final, Pan Gon made four changes to his side that beat Thailand, with Nazmi Faiz Mansor, Mohamadou Sumareh, Akhyar Rashid and captain Syafiq Ahmad all making the first XI.
Malaysia played against a disciplined Tajikistan, who dominated but found it hard to break Harimau Malaya's defence, led by Dion Cools.
In the penalty shootout, goalkeeper Ahmad Syihan Hazmi did well to block Akhtam Nazarov's panenka attempt.
However, Tajikistan goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov denied Cools, Nazmi and Safawi from the spot to hand his side the title.
"Tajikistan players are physically strong, and the rain made it difficult for us to play our normal game.
"However, my players showed good team spirit and determination. I am very proud of their attitude and performance.
"We were unlucky during the penalty shootout. The players did their best from the spot. It was a good outing, and I will now prepare for the next camp ahead of the AFF Cup," added Pan Gon, who tried out the 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 formations during the tournament.
The AFF Cup in December will be the national team's final tune-up before next year's Asian Cup.
Malaysia are in Group B with Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar and Laos in the AFF Cup.
Pan Gon's side will open their campaign against Myanmar in Yangon on Dec 21.