KUALA LUMPUR: The national team suffered two unexpected early body blows.
But they gallantly fought back.
Now, they live to fight another day.
That aptly sums up Harimau Malaya’s 2-2 draw against Vietnam in the AFF Suzuki Cup final, first-leg clash at the National Stadium, Bukit Jalil tonight.
Vietnam stunned the capacity crowd when they struck twice in a three-minute blitz through Nguyen Huy Hung (22nd minute) and Pham Duc Huy (25th).
Shahrul Mohd Saad reduced the deficit in the 37th minute before Muhammad Safawi Rasid levelled the tie with a glorious free-kick in the 60th minute.
There’s still a lot to do in the return leg, to be held in at the My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi on Saturday, but no one said it would be easy.
Of course, Malaysia made it difficult for themselves tonight, despite the vociferous support of a packed stadium.
In a bid to avenge their 0-2 loss to Vietnam in the group stage and their haste to get an early goal, the Harimau Malaya were punished.
A Vietnamese midfielder broke up an attack launched by Safawi in the 22nd minute and lobbed the ball high into Malaysia’s box, which Amirul Azhan Aznan failed to control.
The ball then fell to Huy Hung, who unleashed an unstoppable shot past national custodian Mohd Farizal Marlias and even through a defender a got a leg to it, it was Vietnam 1-0.
Three minutes later the packed stadium was silenced a second time when a Pham Duc Huy pile-driver from outside the box beat Farizal a second time.
Stunned into action, Malaysia began to retaliate.
Just a minute later, Malaysia had a good chance to reduce the deficit but Mohamadou Sumareh’s header was just off target.
These days, national head coach Tan Cheng Hoe’s men are made of sterner stuff.
And they showed their mettle in the 37th minute off a well-worked free-kick set piece.
Mohamed Syamer Kutty Abba floated in a cross and there was Shahrul, running in unmarked, to head home from close range.
And that’s how the score stayed – 2-1 in Vietnam’s favour – at the break.
The second half saw Cheng Hoe play ‘tinkerman’ as he knew he had to go for broke.
He took out Amirul and brought midfielder Muhammad Syafiq Ahmad to add more bite to the attack.
After several close calls on either side, came the break Malaysia had been working hard to find when Safawi was clattered just outside the box in the 60th minute and Harimau Malaya were awarded a free-kick.
Safawi dusted himself and took the free-kick himself.
And what a goal it was as he curled the ball beyond the reach of Vietnam goalkeeper Dang Van Lam.
Cue pandemonium on the stands. And relief on the field.
Cheng Hoe then threw on Muhammad Akhyar Rashid to replace Norshahrul Idlan Talaha as his men went looking for the third goal.
But it proved in vain.
Now, Malaysia have it all to do again on Saturday as they seek to lift the Cup for only the second time since 2010. — Bernama