Malaysia eliminates India from the Merdeka Tournament with a 4-2 win
The winning goals from Dion Cools (7′), Arif Aimen (20′), Faisal Halim (42′) and Le’Vere Corbin-Ong (61′) orchestrated the Malaysian triumph over the higher-ranked opponent. A magnificent volley from Naorem Mahesh (14′) and Sunil Chhetri’s second-half goal managed to revive the visitors but the Blue Tigers eventually succumbed to the controversial decisions of the referees.
The Malaysian gaffer Kim Pan fielded his strongest lineup with a 4-2-3-1 formation to kick-start the multi-nation saga on home turf. Meanwhile, Igor Stimac turned up with multiple surprising changes by promoting the likes of Rohit Kumar and Mehtab Singh Sandhu into the Indian starting XI.
The Blue Tigers took the first kick of the tournament’s opening match in traditional blue colors attacking from right to left. The home team graced the battlefield donning away all-black kits in front of a roaring full-house crowd in the Malaysian capital city.
India startled the Malaysian defense with an early attacking move which could have broken the deadlock in the very second minute of the game. Akash Mishra barged into the opposition guard with a well-aimed cross from the left flank but Rohit who received it at the edge of the box ended up striking it on the crossbar from just outside the penalty box and India signalled their intent from the start against hosts Malaysia.
While clearing the aerial threat from rebound, Syihan Hazmi got into a heated argument with the Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri who was intending to outsmart the 27-year-old goalkeeper. The Harimau Malaya side also firmly responded with imminent attacks led by Arif Aiman who struck the first targeted attempt in the seventh minute but his shot was swiftly turned down by the Indian Wall.
As a consequence of Gurpreet’s clearance, the home team was awarded their first corner kick and the Malaysians employed a corner routine as the ball was worked to Cools at the back post after a failed clearance from Sandesh Jhingan and the 27-year old defender found the back of the net.
Despite conceding the opening, Coach Stimac and his boys stayed back to their aggressive approach and it took them only seven more minutes to find an equalizer.
In the 14th minute, a cross from Lallianzuala Chhangte found Sahal Abdul Samad in the penalty box and the Mohun Bagan SG midfielder produced a dreamy back-heel to find Naorem Mahesh Singh who deliciously volleyed the ball past the goalkeeper.
However, India’s goal couldn’t keep them equal for long as the hosts once again took the driving seat in the game. A clumsy yet light push from Nikhil Poojary on Darren Lok was deemed as a penalty offense in the 20th minute and the youngster Arif fired the ball in the top right section of the goal. Even though Gurpreet dived the right way, the ball whizzed past him in the back of the net.
The second goal shook the visitors’ defensive unit as they started giving away space to the invaders for frequent progressive moves in the final moments of the first half.
Just before the clock was about to strike the half-hour mark, Aarif got in behind the Indian defense but his unselfish layoff was too ahead of Faisal Halim and the ball fizzed out of play.
Before the Indian team could regroup at the half-time break and think of a new strategy, Malaysia’s press was too strong as Aarif Aiman once again released Faisal who ran through on goal and fired the ball past Gurpreet as the Bengaluru goalkeeper was caught standing in no man’s land.
The Indian general instilled the Blue forces with a refreshing approach and even more aggressive tactics which was quite visible during the initial minutes of the second half. They successfully reduced the two-goal lead to one in the 51st minute when skipper Chhetri tapped the ball back of the net with assistance from Mahesh and Chhangte. The 39-year-old veteran striker opted not to celebrate the 94th goal of his decorated international career knowing the trailing goal deficit.
It was followed by a controversial decision made by the Malaysian referees when they decided to disallow Chhangte’s goal in the 57th minute. The Mumbai City winger managed to surpass goalie Hazmi however, the whistle-men validated the goal-line clearance from Cools. Despite the evident replay and a fuming response from the Indian contingent, the referee stood by his decision and moreover booked the non-playing Indian forward Liston Colaco for his protests.
The disallowance took a psychological toll on the visitors who were on the verge of staging a comeback as Stimac also started preparing his substitutions by this time. Malayan Blacks utilized this advantage to stage another successful attack and regained the two-goal lead just 10 minutes after conceding the second goal. Faisal’s magic on the wings played a pivotal role in setting this goal for his fellow teammate La’Vere Corbin-Ong, moving the scoreboard to 4-2 in the 61st minute.
Indian defense was shattered but the offense department had little to no effect on the continuous setbacks as they kept knitting forward moves relentlessly. They may not have found success but the attacking duo of Naorem Mahesh and Chhangte came very close on multiple occasions to bring them back into the winning equation.
The scoreline definitely does not depict the hard work done by the Blue Tigers on foreign soil as they bow out of the tournament after making their first appearance in 22 years. On the other hand, the hosts will now be preparing to face the 110th-ranked Tajikistan side in their 19th final appearance in this prestigious competition.