COMMENT: Why Malaysia were the real winners of the Causeway Challenge

Causeway Challenge 2016 at the National Stadium on 7 Oct 2016. Photo: FAS
Causeway Challenge 2016 at the National Stadium on 7 Oct 2016. Photo: FAS

By John Duerden

In the end it was 0-0 and Malaysia were the happier of the two teams – you could argue that they were the real winners for a number of reasons.

Sure, Singapore had lots of chances to win the 2016 Causeway Challenge. The crossbar came to save the inexperienced visitors and all in all, it was a frustrating evening for fans at the National Stadium on Friday (7 Oct).

In the past 18 months, the Malaysian national has suffered a 10-0 thrashing and three 6-0 losses. This is a national team that has had a major falling out with its leading club, resulting in four of the best players in the country voluntarily retiring from the international stage in July.

Malaysia lost 3-0 last month to an Indonesian team that had not played an international game for 18 months after a ban from FIFA.

“To be honest if I was the coach, I wouldn't play Malaysia,” said former Singapore international R. Sasikumar. “I would rather play bigger and stronger opponents. You need to know your strengths and weaknesses so you can work on them.”

The one-time defender did point out that there are not always other choices. “But there have been a lot of restrictions with other teams being available. It is just one of those things.”

Singapore was playing a weakened Malaysia that is lacking in self-belief and confidence – a team that was happy not to lose. This is not ideal preparation for Singapore’s tougher tests ahead.

In November’s AFF Suzuki Cup, Indonesia are in Singapore's group, together with Philippines and Thailand. On paper, Indonesia is the easiest of the three in the group. Thailand are not only defending champions but clearly the best team in Southeast Asia right now.

The one encouragement for the others is that the Thais are active in the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup at around the same time. Coach Kiatisuk 'Zico' Senamuang may not bring his strongest team to the tournament but Thailand will still be expected to finish in the top two and progress to the semi-finals.

The Philippines have improved leaps and bounds over the past few years and showed their progress with some impressive results in the previous round of World Cup qualification beating Bahrain, Yemen and North Korea.

Playing your biggest rivals in a warm-up game can be tricky – the result becomes more important than it should be.

Singapore coach V. Sundramoorthy said after the game that a game with Malaysia is a little different. "To motivate the players against Malaysia was easy," he added. "The tension between the too countries are high in football. Neighbours and bragging rights – that motivated the players."

Such comments show that this is no normal friendly or warm-up game. Players, media and fans want to win. Being victorious is nice but a coach needs to have other things on his mind a month out of a big tournament.

Malaysia assistant coach Brad Maloney admitted that it was not ideal to be playing their biggest rivals, but added, “We are in different groups at the AFF Suzuki Cup and then there are not a lot of options at times.

“The Catch-22 is that it is true you want to win against your rivals and that is what the fans want. At the same time, you want to prepare yourself for the Suzuki Cup. You have to find the right balance.”

For Malaysia, it was better. The team was on the backfoot and defending as it will be against Vietnam and perhaps co-hosts Myanmar next month. It was a great exercise in defending as a team and working hard and, perhaps, more importantly, improving confidence.

Singapore however, will be facing stronger opponents at the AFF Suzuki Cup. The other teams in Singapore’s group are going to be more aggressive than this inexperienced Malaysian team.

There may not have been many options and while there were positives for Singapore to take, the real winners on Friday were Malaysia.