SOME two decades ago, nobody would have batted an eyelid when Malaysia were drawn against Laos but how things have changed since as the two teams prepare to meet in the men's football semi-finals at the National Stadium in Vientiane today.
As recently as the 2007 Korat Sea Games, Malaysia beat Laos 4-0 in the group stage but the stakes are much higher this time as the national Under-23 team prepare to face the hosts in a hostile atmosphere.
Coach K. Rajagobal said the players must learn to block the crowd out of their minds when they step on to the pitch today (kick-off: 8pm).
"We've reached the semi-finals which was our target when we came here and now the players have to continue to work hard.
"Laos will have the crowd support but we have to come out with a game plan of our own with the players we have available.
"We still have to take it one game at a time, that has not changed, despite the brickbats we received after losing to Vietnam," said Rajagobal yesterday.
But Malaysia will be short-handed against Laos with Ahmad Fakri Saarani, the match winner against Thailand on Friday, serving a one-match suspension while winger Amirulhadi Zainal is ruled out for the rest of the tournament through a three-match ban.
That leaves Rajagobal with few options up front as he contemplates recalling eye-infection victim Zaquan Adha Radzak with Norshahrul Idlan Talaha and Abdul Manaf Mamat the only forwards available.
Goalkeeper Sharbinee Allawee Ramli should keep his place ahead of Farizal Marlias after two splendid displays against Cambodia and Thailand while winger S. Kunanlan, probably Malaysia's most impressive player against the Thais, will be looked upon to deliver a similar performance.
Azmi Muslim, who set up the winning goal after replacing Mat Sabre Mat Abu at leftback, could be poised for his first start of the tournament.
"Nobody gave us a chance against Thailand yet we got through so I want to see the same never-say-die attitude from the players. If they put in the effort and work hard, we stand a chance of making the final," added Rajagobal.
Laos, who made consecutive semi-finals in the 1967 and 1969 Seap Games, have only beaten Malaysia once in five meetings in the Sea Games.
Memories of that lone 1-0 defeat at the 1997 Sea Games in Jakarta is fresh in the minds of Malaysians but after the bitter lesson learnt in the 3-1 defeat to Vietnam last week, the squad have matured greatly in a matter of days and can be expected to provide a respectable performance. NST