Thamil brace rewards Harimau Muda patience
Photography by Aundry Gan
It took the Harimau Muda of Malaysia all of 68 minutes to find a way past a committed and resilient Woodlands Wellington side in Saturday evening’s Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League game at Woodlands Stadium.
When they finally did it, though, the visitors scored with the simplest of goals to take the lead, before going 2-0 up three minutes from time to deny the Rams even a share of the spoils.
The home side had looked more than capable of scoring themselves, especially in the first half, but importantly they were able to defend well enough to think that they might frustrate their opponents long enough to steal a draw, or even the win.
Yet two lapses of concentration were to prove their undoing, and when the first of those mistakes occurred, it was particularly hard to swallow.
Having rested one star man in Ahmad Hazwan Bakri, bringing him on only in the last ten minutes or so for a tiring Syahrul Azwari, Harimau Muda coach Ong Kim Swee made sure his other top player, winger Wan Zack Haikal, was a starter.
For long periods the flamboyant Wan Zack was linking up, mostly down the right, with Syahrul and skipper Mahalli Jasuli, but the Woodlands defence kept their shape and their heads, while the visitors maintained their patience when chances that fell to them were not put away.
The opening goal came from the left, with Wan Zack getting to the corner flag almost unchallenged and then whipping in a shoulder-height cross that seemed to be unrecognised by the Rams defence.
Completely failing to pick up a sneaking Thamil Arasu, they watched in agony as he planted a header easily past a hitherto heroic Ahmadulhaq Che Omar in the Woodlands goal.
That goal deflated the Rams, who laboured thereafter to regain their equilibrium and were made to work hard for the remainder of the game to hold off their opponents, now emboldened by their breakthrough goal.
Thamil dragged another chance wide from 12 yards out on 75 minutes, while a free kick a few moments earlier had gone just wide from the boot of the same player.
Woodlands were unfortunate to lose central defender Fabien Lewis around the same time, as the player suffered a neck injury when falling awkwardly after making a tackle.
“As a precaution we put him in a neck brace and didn’t move him until we were sure he was alright,” explained Rams assistant coach Clement Teo at the end of the game.
“Fabien said he felt some tightness around the neck, but he had feeling in his limbs, so we stabilised him before sending him to hospital for assessment. I feel he should probably be okay.”
When Harimau Muda midfielder Irfan Fazail got through the defence down the right on 87 minutes and cut the ball back for Thamil, the second goal was a formality as the elusive No.9 once again merely had to tap the ball past an exposed Ahmadulhaq.
The visitors made some late substitutions, while Woodlands brought on K. Sathiaraj for the stricken Lewis, as well as Oswind Suriya Rosaryo and Guntur Djafril for Farizal Basri and Shamsurin Abdul Rahman respectively.
But most of the hopefulness had been drained from the home team well before then as the Harimau Muda players assumed full control.
It had been a different story before the break, and even up until the first goal had been scored.
“What more can we do?” lamented Teo as he surveyed the scene of another group of dejected players, following another close and hard-fought loss.
“We worked hard at training and we knew how the Harimau Muda would play, only to switch off at the vital moments.”
While the Rams did indeed have chances in the first-half, so too did the visitors.
They forced no fewer than four early corners and elected to play each of them short, though without making much of an impact with that approach.
Perhaps the presence of Daniel Hammond at the heart of the Woodlands defence made them wary of delivering long crosses, and as these Malaysians are most noted for their passing game, the short game may well have been their preferred line of thinking anyway.
As it was, they still created chances, mostly in general play, but their finishing was below par and the Woodlands defence gave them few opportunities at close range.
The best of the Harimau Muda’s early chances came on 36 minutes, when Syahrul cut in from the left and looked up to try a shot, only for a combination of Lewis and Ahmadulhaq, with a last-ditch save, to deny him.
Wan Zack also went close shortly before half-time when he latched on to a Mahalli cross, only to see the Woodlands defenders get enough on the ball to deflect it away for a corner.
The hosts had a chance of their own on 43 minutes, Moon Soon Ho fully testing Harimau Muda goalkeeper Farhan Abu Bakar, who had to scramble across to make the save, conceding a corner as a consequence.
The second half began with Woodlands looking very determined in the face of a growing number of assaults on their goal.
In what could have been a portent of what was going to happen towards the end, Irfan was put through on the right by a Wan Zack pass, but although looking menacing, the youngster met his match in Hussein Akil, whose saving tackle inside the penalty area was right out of the textbook.
Goh Swee Swee might have had better luck than he did on 58 minutes when he arrived a little too late to turn in a very good cross from Moon on the left.
Then came the two goals that settled the issue, and the points were on their way to Malaysia yet again.
“I think the boys were patient and disciplined tonight, and once we finally scored the first goal we were able to take the initiative,” said Ong of his Harimau Muda charges when it was all over.
“We have three games close together, so I am giving all of the players a chance. Tonight Syahrul started; he has not started many games so far, and tonight he did well.”
The same could be said of Farhan, starting ahead of regular custodian Izham Tarmizi Roslan, while Fandi Othman was kept on the bench for the whole game as well.
And while these players may see action soon enough, Woodlands now face a long wait of around a month before being engaged again.
The long period of idleness left Teo a little frustrated, though resigned to the situation.
“What can we do? The other S.League clubs don’t want to play friendlies against us at this stage of the season and the National Football League clubs are not really strong enough to give us the kind of game we need,” he observed.
“Our coach Salim Moin figured things out for this game tactically and got that right, but the players, for all their hard work, had no luck in successfully implementing the instructions, sad to say.”