Crunch time for defending champions Malaysia

Southeast Asian champions Malaysia will be desperate to put a run of poor performances behind them when they begin the defence of their AFF Suzuki Cup football title this weekend.

File picture. Malaysian football fans cheer as their victorious international football team arrive with the AFF Suzuki Cup trophy at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in December 2010. Southeast Asian champions Malaysia will be desperate to put a run of poor performances behind them when they begin the defence of their AFF Suzuki Cup football title this weekend.

Malaysia host southern neighbours Singapore in what is set to be a hothouse atmosphere at Kuala Lumpur's Bukit Jalil National Stadium on Sunday, with the home fans hoping to see their team repeat their heroics of 2010.

The Tigers showed bite in that tournament when they overcame a poor start to win the Southeast Asian title for the first time with a 4-2 aggregate victory over Indonesia in the final.

Coach K. Rajagobal has maintained the nucleus of that winning side but their form has dipped alarmingly with warm-up losses to Vietnam and Thailand, and draws at home against unfancied Hong Kong and Bangladesh.

Rajagobal was livid after Tuesday's 1-1 draw with Bangladesh and warned he would make "drastic changes" if they slip-up again this weekend.

"We didn't get the desired result against Bangladesh and I'll take stern action if we don't get a positive result against Singapore," he said.

"I'm concerned with the team's display... Another below-par performance will force me to make drastic changes to the team."

Singapore will be looking to avenge a 2-0 loss to the Malaysians at the same venue in June, and the three-time Southeast Asian champions are coming off a 4-0 thumping of Pakistan in their final warm-up game on Monday.

Group B also includes Indonesia, who reached the final two years ago but now look a very different side following a rift which has split the country's football scene into two leagues with different governing bodies.

Players from the breakaway Indonesian Super League have been told by their clubs not to join up with the coach Nil Maizar's national team, although Persija Jakarta striker Bambang Pamungkas opted to put his country first.

"I came from my home to join the Indonesian national team training camp," said the 32-year-old. "As a professional, I hope that the Indonesian football dualism ends here."

Thailand are the hosts of Group A and they will kick off their campaign at the Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok on Saturday against the Philippines, the surprise package of the last Suzuki Cup.

The Thais have won the competition three times, but their last title came a decade ago in 2002. Led by wily coach Winfried Schafer, their squad blends experience with young talent and they will be fancied to end their long drought.

"The AFF Suzuki Cup is very important for this region and I hope we can at least reach the final, although it will not be easy," said the German. "We face three good teams but we are playing at home which is an advantage."

They face a tough opening test against the Filipinos, who reached the semi-finals for the first time in 2010 after a stunning 2-0 win over defending champions Vietnam in Hanoi.

The ambitious Azkals are looking to move a step beyond that and they are certainly well prepared after playing more than a dozen friendly matches in the past six months.

The match will be preceded by the tournament's opener between 2008 winners Vietnam and Myanmar.

Group matches are split between Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok with the semis and final, all played over two legs home and away, starting on December 8. The tournament wraps up on December 22.

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Writer: AFP
Position: News agency