A poor second half performance by Harimau Malaya saw them lose 0-2 to a dominant Thai side, who hold the advantage going into the second leg this weekend.
Thailand boss Kiatisuk Senamuang made only one change to the side that started the semi-final second leg win over the Philippines, replacing Prakit Deeprom with Adisak Kraisorn, who returned from suspension. Meanwhile, his opposite number Dollah Salleh made no changes to the starting eleven that dispatched Vietnam away from home last week.
The match started like a freight train, and it took only three minutes for Safiq Rahim to swing a cross in to Thailand’s box. Amri Yahyah met it, but his powerful header was straight at Kawin Thamasatchanan, who saved easily. Thailand hit back immediately, with Mongkol Tossakrai blazing over the bar from Narubodin Weerawatnodom’s cut-back.
Incredibly, the ball went straight back up the other end, as Amri cut inside from the left before firing wide of the near post. Thailand’s goal-kick was returned instantly by Indra Putra Mahayuddin, whose flick sent Norshahrul Idlan Talaha away. Pursued by two defenders, his half-volley from just outside the box was parried away by Kawin, who rushed off his line quickly.
Both teams were playing end-to-end stuff, and Kroekrit Thaweekarn fired into the side netting from Chanatip Songkrasin’s pass in the seventh minute. That’s right, all these events happened in the opening seven minutes.
Harimau Malaya were keeping it tight in midfield, defending with discipline as they allowed Thailand to keep the ball in less-threatening areas like the flanks and in their own half. Kunanlan, playing at right-back yet again at the expense of Mahali Jasuli, made several crucial tackles down the right flank, and Fadhli had to head some crosses away.
On the half hour mark, captain Shukor Adan roamed upfield and played a quick one-two with Badhri Radzi, but he shot into the side netting. Yet again, Thailand hit back immediately through Sarach Yooyen, who received Chanatip’s pass and fired straight at Farizal Marlias. Kroekrit had a direct free-kick saved; while a quick break by Malaysia saw Tanaboon Kesarat kick the ball behind for a corner under pressure from Mat Yo.
Two minutes before half-time, Adisak had the best chance of the half after a mistake by Fadhli sent him through on goal. Fortunately for the visitors, Farizal rushed off his line and pushed the Thai striker’s shot away at the last moment, to ensure that both sides went in at the break tied at 0-0.
Both sides began the second half as they started the first. Safiq curled a free-kick just wide in the 50th minute; while Mongkol and Adisak blazed their shots over the bar just several minutes later. On the hour, Safiq played a one-two with Norshahrul, but Suttinun Phuk-hom performed a crucial sliding block to deny him. Again, Thailand countered via Kroekrit and Adisak, who had their shots blocked (by Fadhli) and saved (by Farizal), respectively.
Kawin had to be alert to push a sudden grounder by Amri round the post, but was otherwise untroubled as Thailand continued to dominate. They kept knocking on the door, but found Malaysia’s defence a tough nut to crack. However, in the 70th minute, a clever turn by Adisak in the box deceived Fadhli, who stuck out a leg. The young striker fell, and a penalty was awarded to the hosts. Charyl Chappuis stepped up and sent the ball under the despairing dive of Farizal. 1-0 to Thailand.
Chasing the game, Dollah brought on Safee Sali and Baddrol Bakhtiar in the 75th minute, and it took the Kedah skipper just six minutes to curl a left-footer that Kawin pushed away.
Malaysia continued to press, but were hit on the counter with four minutes left via Prakit Deeprom’s delightful through-ball to Chanatip, who raced clear of the Malaysian defence, but had the presence of mind to cross low to Kroekrit. The 24-year-old evaded the challenge of Kunanlan to fire high into the roof of the net, and double his side’s lead.
Just before full-time, the War Elephants almost added a third, as a spectacular one-touch passing move involving at least four players ended with Chappuis putting his shot just wide of the far post. The referee indicated for four minutes of added time, and Malaysia almost scored a consolation with the last kick of the game, but Kawin did excellently to claw Indra Putra’s looping header past the post, to preserve his third successive clean sheet.
The final whistle sounded soon after, and Thailand celebrated a well-deserved victory. They will take a 2-0 lead to the Bukit Jalil Stadium this Saturday, but Malaysia showed in flashes that they’re not out of the tie just yet.