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From Akhyar to Mukhairi and Luqman - Malaysia's next generation is the key to AFF Suzuki Cup success

8:32 PM MYT 07/12/2021
Malaysia vs Cambodia, AFF Suzuki Cup 2020, 6 Dec 2021
Young Tigers came to the fore against Cambodia and could prove vital to Malaysia's title challenge

Just like it was three years ago, Malaysia entered the AFF Suzuki Cup with lots of question marks hanging over the selection of the squad.

With the tournament to be played outside of the FIFA international window once more, Tan Cheng Hoe's hands are tied in some respect.

Injuries and unavailability of three key individuals in midfield meant that Malaysia's ambitions for this 2020 edition took another blow.

Brendan Gan, Nor Azam Azih and Syamer Kutty Abba have formed the backbone of Tan's midfield ever since he took over and to be without all three was a significant blow as Malaysia dreamed of going one step further than in 2018 this time around.

Yet just like it was in 2018, Tan has somehow managed to cobble up what looks like a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, with just the right combination of experienced players and fresh youngsters ready to fight.

If Syahmi Safari, Safawi Rasid, Nor Azam and Syamer were given the opportunities three years ago, this time around it were the likes of Mukhairi Ajmal, Akhyar Rashid, Luqman Hakim and Arif Aiman getting the chance to see if they sink or swim at this level.

In fact, a total of seven players who played against Cambodia - whether it was from the start or from the bench - were under the age of 25, with R. Kogileswaran, Syahmi and Safawi also still falling within that age-bracket.

To a man, every single player more than showed they can compete at this level, albeit it was against Cambodia and not what are supposedly tougher opponents in Group B like Vietnam and Indonesia, which would be far bigger tests for these players.

Tan understandably was a little cautious with his initial selection, with Junior Eldstal getting a start, but then the 53-year-old made the brave decision to throw Mukhairi in his place after just 27 minutes as the former struggled in the middle of the pitch.

A decison that would vindicate Tan as Mukhairi formed a good partnership with his footballing idol in Baddrol Bakhtiar. Malaysia seized control of the midfield and began to orchestrate attack after attack to eventually lead the game by three goals through Safawi, Akhyar and Kogileswaran, before Cambodia pulled back a late consolation goal.

"If you observe Mukhairi, he has been performing well for the Under-19s and U-22s. At the same time this is a different level for him. He absorbs all the pressure and situation knowing that we need the win," said Tan in a video session with Malaysian media. 

"We encouraged him during training saying that he should believe in himself and that we trust him to perform. With his performance, it was a good start for him where he gained exposure and experience at this higher level. Definitely will be a positive sign for him.

"We’ll see in one or two days' time. We have to analyse overall the game against Cambodia and see because we know Laos is very compact defending and totally different to Cambodia. Then we’ll plan whether Mukhairi will start against Laos."

It's a sentiment that is seemingly echoed throughout the squad, believing and having faith in the person next to each other in the dressing room and on the pitch. An unspoken trust in each other that often makes passing lines appear when other times that can be dictated by the person receiving the ball.

Now 26 years of age, Syafiq Ahmad has perhaps advanced his position in the team from the younger section to the senior side and as one who has gone through this being on the other side fairly recently, he knows full well a good thing when he sees one.

"Coach always stressed that we are one family. It doesn’t matter who is older or younger, we are here as one," explained Syafiq during the same call.

"We can talk about anything and joke about anything but there’s a limit to that of course because we still have to maintain being respectful.

"Whoever the coach picks and gives an opportunity to is a chance for that player and the team. So when a young player gets game time, it’s a chance for the player to prove that he deserves to be here."

For a first game in the tournament in what is effectively Malaysia's warm-up game having not managed to play any friendly prior to the start of the competition, it was more than a decent outcome in scoring three times and earning that all important three points.

Malaysia are still a long way off from being able to claim their place as one of the main challengers to the trophy but already there are positive signs - and they are provided by the younger batch of this Harimau Malaya squad, long may that continue.