Semifinals are inherently exciting. But there is drama, and then there is drama.
Thailand striker Adisak Kraisorn had already scored eight goals in the 2018 AFF Cup ahead of the second leg of the semifinal in Bangkok –more than the whole team of visitors Malaysia combined. Yet when he looks back at the tournament, the soon-to-be confirmed golden boot winner will not be able to see past the last second of the last game.
After 180 minutes of action, the scoreline was 2-2. As all goals came in Bangkok, with the first game in Kuala Lumpur four days earlier a 0-0 draw, Malaysia were heading through to the final on away goals.
Nobody will ever know why Syahmi Safari — who had sent Malaysian fans into a frenzy with a stunning first half strike — stuck his arm in the air to handle the ball in the box deep inside injury time. Adisak, and the vast majority of the 40,000 inside the Rajamangala, didn’t care as he was about to fire Thailand into the final with the final kick of the tie.
Except he didn’t. He blasted the ball high over the bar to break Thai hearts, send Malaysian fans wild and provide inspiration for internet memes that had the ball floating past the planets in the solar system.
As devastated as the striker was, spare a thought for Thailand goalkeeper Chatchai Budprom who was seemingly trolled after the game.
Chatchai advised Malaysia to get a good night’s sleep before the second leg, as a nightmare awaited at the Rajamangala. In an Instagram post, the victorious visitors pretended to nap in the dressing room before waking up and shouting what appears to be “Chatchai!”
It is refreshing to hear a little trash talk in Asian football where press conferences are usually as boring as the continental scene is exciting. As all who have fired their mouths off in the past know however, that when the big talk is not followed by the big walk then there will be consequences.
Yet most agreed with the shot-stopper. Few gave Malaysia more than a slight chance at the home of a Thai team going for title number six and a third successive triumph. Harimau Malaya had impressed in the goalless draw in Kuala Lumpur but that was surely going to be as good as it got. The chances that had been wasted that night meant that the big chance had gone.
It hadn’t and over the two legs, Malaysia deserve to be preparing for the final either against Vietnam or the Philippines. Twice they fell behind but twice they came back. The strike from the young Syahmi, a rocket into the top corner from outside the area, was one of the goals of the tournament. Then, Norshahrul Idlan, 12 years older than the 20 year-old full-back, contributed his own fine goal. Receiving the ball with his back to the goal, the man known as Mat Yo turned and shot home in one fluid motion.
In terms of the quality of goals, Malaysia’s two lovely efforts surpassed the two scrappy strikes from the War Elephants but there was more. Thailand have been criticised for being overly cautious throughout the tournament and after being second best in the first leg, where there were no shots on target from the visitors, it was assumed that Bangkok would be different.
Yet the onslaught never really came. Malaysia worked hard, once again, to deny the champions time and space and, once again, Sanrawat Dechmitr was given no time or space and the creative lifeline was cut. Too many Thai players did not perform when the pressure was on and while a semifinal with a 2-2 scoreline is no disgrace, it falls behind the high standards that Thailand have set for themselves.
Malaysia set a pre-tournament target of the final but it was seen as a long shot. Credit to coach Tan Cheng Hoe who has turned things around after a dismal few years. The work-rate, team spirit and self-belief all help to make the Tigers unrecognisable from the animal seen just a year ago.
Whatever happens, this has been a successful tournament for Malaysia. And there will be 90,000 fans for the final at the Bukit Jalil and there can be no better arena for the regional showpiece and no better support for this resurgent Malaysian team. Adisak’s ballooned penalty sent Malaysia into dreamland but there are greater heights ahead.