Malaysia won the 41st edition of the Merdeka Tournament by defeating Myanmar 2-0 at the Darulmakmur Stadium in Kuantan, Saturday (14 Sept).
The scoreline was not a reflection of Malaysia’s dominance as they created many chances throughout the match but could not finish.
The win, however, was more satisfying given that the nation celebrates Malaysia Day on Monday. And the fans created a terrific atmosphere, refusing to budge from their seats despite the heavens opening up at halftime.
Malaysia last won the trophy in 2007. Despite making the final in 2008, the last time the Merdeka Tournament was staged; Malaysia lost 6-5 on penalties to Vietnam.
Some 25,000 fans thronged the stadium to provide the encouragement to the Malaysian team, with Ultras Malaya singing on the top of their voices throughout the match.
In somewhat a strange strategy, team coach Ong kim Swee opted to play A. Tamil Arasu in a more defensive midfield role with Md Rozaimi Ab Rahman acting as a lone striker with Wan Zack Haikal aiding him as a back-up striker.
That gave Myanmar the upper hand in midfield as Kyi Lin, Kyaw Zayar Win and Kyaw Ko Ko dominated the Malaysian central midfield of Junior Eldstal and Mohd Irfan Fazail.
Malaysia had a great opportunity to go ahead in the second minute but Thamil Arasu somehow got the ball entangled in between his legs and the opportunity was squandered.
With Myanmar playing a high defense, Malaysia opted to catch them on the break and were nearly successful a couple of times. And off such and situation, the ball fell to Junior who however muffed the chance, shooting wide from 15 meters with the Myanmar defence in disarray.
Malaysia made a tactical change, opting for a five-man midfield after 20 minutes and it paid dividends.
In the 28th minute Malaysia took the lead. Wan Zack Haikal broke through on the right and his attempt was only parried by Myanmar keeper Pyaye Phyo Aung onto the path of Md Rozaimi Rahman who had the simplest of tasks of tapping into goal, much to the joy of the fans.
Myanmar nearly drew level in the second minute of time added on as Kyi Lin created space and let fly a shot that sailed dangerously close at the far post.
Wan Zack could have doubled the lead in the 56th minute after being put through by Thamil but his shot found the side netting.
Myanmar came close in the 60th minute with Kyaw Ko Ko shooting into the side netting after being put through by Kyi Lin.
Malaysia made their first substitution in the 63rd minute, replacing goal scorer Rozaimi with S. Sivanesan, thus pushing Thamil Arasu into a more attacking role.
And that gave Malaysia fresh impetus as they attacked relentlessly with Thamil Arasu forcing keeper Phyo Aung to use his legs to thwart an attempt in the 68th minute.
In the 75th minute, Irfan played a defence splitting pass to Wan Zack, whose attempt was deflected out by David Htan. From the ensuing corner Mohd Fadhli Shas rocked the bar with his header and Malaysia was denied yet again by the woodwork.
And when Junior was put through three minutes into stoppage time, he made sure that this time no woodwork will stand in between him as he sent a delightful shot into the far corner, thus sealing the tile for Malaysia.
And when the final whistle went, the nation rejoiced as Ong Kim Swee’s boys showed that they have arrived on the big stage.
Roll of Honour
Top Goal Scorer – Md Rozaimi Ab Rahman (3 Goals)
Most Valuable Player: Wan Zack Haikal