'Malaysia shouldn't wilt in the desert'

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia should have no reason to be shrinking violets in the desert at the Under-23 Asian Cup in Qatar, according to former national coach Datuk Ong Kim Swee.

Kim Swee, who guided Malaysia to the quarter-finals of the continental youth tournament in 2018, said the national Under-23 team's eyes should be on the prize and they should not be overawed by the occasion.

The Young Tigers, who are in Group D will meet Uzbekistan on April 17 followed by Vietnam (April 20) and Kuwait (April 23).

The Malaysians, coached by Spaniard Juan Torres Garrido, have been training in Doha for the last 12 days. In friendly matches there, Malaysia lost 2-1 to China on April 4 and 1-0 to Qatar on April 7.

Kim Swee said there is little disparity in standards among the teams, and the Malaysians' match fitness will be the key factor.

"We are in a tricky group with Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Kuwait, but I believe we have a chance to go far in the tournament.

"Vietnam have not been doing well in recent times. I don't think Kuwait are too far ahead of us, and we have beaten Saudi Arabia at this level before.

"It's all about the time taken to prepare for the competition. The team have been based in Doha and playing friendlies. This is a high-level competition and a well-prepared team can get the results here.

"The players are coming from preseason, some had trained with their clubs before joining the national camp, so they should be in good shape. At this level, match fitness is very important, and for them to train early and play friendly is a good move.

"The backroom staff would have planned well on what to work on with the players. We should not be looking too much into the results of the friendly matches. The target in these matches is not to win but to improve and try things."

Kim Swee pointed out that the current Under-23 squad have an edge compared to the 2018 side, as some of the players had featured in the 2022 edition of the Under-23 Asian Cup.

Among the players who will be making their second appearance in the competition are skipper Mukhairi Ajmal Mahadi, Luqman Hakim Shamsudin, Ubaidullah Shamsul, Syahir Bashah, S afwan Mazlan, Harith Haiqal, Ahmad Zikri Khalili and Aiman Afif Md Afizul.

"Some of the current Under-23 players have the experience of playing in the previous Under-23 Asian Cup under Brad (Maloney), and they would know the standards at this level.

"We should not be too worried about winning from the first match or winning all the matches. We shouldn't put unnecessary pressure. I believe the last group match against Kuwait will be the decider of the team's fate.

"I think our players are mature as some of them had played in the last edition of the Under-23 Asian Cup, some have been playing in the M-League with big clubs. They are very experienced and it will help their campaign," said Kim Swee.

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