By Paul Masefield
In all my time working as a lead commentator for ESPN STAR Sports, I have to say that I have never enjoyed commentating on a game more than the one I covered last Sunday night.
The Malaysia vs Thailand game was a privilege to work on, and having the opportunity to cover such an important game with my co-commentator Jamie Reeves, gave us both immense satisfaction. All that we hope is that we did the game proud and everyone who witnessed the game enjoyed it as much as we did.
What a belter!
I have been working for the past 18 years on Asian football and the last game I felt that was anything like this was way back in 2006 when the Uwara Red Diamonds won the AFCChampions League. This game however was a fantastic spectacle that had it all and the only surprise was that it ended 1-1.
We were expecting a thriller in Manila a day earlier but that never materialised as Philippines played out a cagey affair with Singapore, but the battle at the Bukit Jalil Stadium was one that I will remember for a long time to come. The only thing missing from the actual match itself was a red card shown to a player, although we did have one shown to Winfried Schafer, the Thailand coach who will be in the stands for the next leg in Bangkok.
Where do I start? Malaysia had to make a couple of changes due to injuries, and I was very sad not to see Wan Zack Haikal playing in this one. With Shakir Shaari missing from midfield and a hamstring injury to Safee Sali, Harimau Malaya really got themselves up for this game.
Straight away, the attacking intent, closing down and pressing from Malaysia were effective. Norshahrul Idlan Talaha worked tirelessly up front and caused all sorts of problems. With Wan Zack missing, it was another Harimau Muda youngster that helped to steal the show. Gary Robbat was immense in midfield and his hard work allowed Safiq Rahim to push forward in an-almost free role. You have to say that K. Rajagobal got his tactics spot on and knew which buttons to press as his side looked the more likely to score in the first half. They continued in the after the break as well, but by that time, the War Elephants had started to play themselves into the game a bit more.
Datsakorn Thonglao didn't touch the ball for the first 25 minutes, but showed his class with his first ball of the evening and then that is when the fun started. While Thailand, at times, looked to overplay things, some of the football was exquisite but a lack of runners going forward meant that the Malaysians had the upper hand.
That was until Schafer made the change after going one down to a wonderfully constructed goal from Harimau Malaya - Mahalli Jasuli down the right flank and Norshahrul getting in front of his man to nod into the far post. Jamie Reeves loved that play as he was a striker and appreciated the movement. Then, the change came and Kirati Keowsumbat went to partner Teerasil Dangda up front.
Teerasil had started to get into the game a bit more, but I believe we saw the goal of the tournament as he headed from 16 yards out giving Farizal Marlias no chance in goal. Just when we thought we thought both sides would play out the remainder of the game, Safee Sali looked certain to score and I could not believe what happened next.
If Thailand do progress from this tie then they have Kawin Thamsatchanan in goal to thank. I have never seen a point-blank range save like that in Asian competition before and for a moment I was in awe of what he did and how he did it. Never mind the best save of the tournament, I have been watching this competition since its conception and have worked on this tournament for the past 12 years. I can clearly say, I have never ever seen a save like that. It was truly wonderful to see and even better to commentate on. It was quite simply a moment of brilliance.
You have to say that if the first leg is anything to go by then this one promises so much as well. I am going to make a bold statement now that is based on the past and based on a gut feeling that I have. I believe that Malaysia will go through from this semi-final. I see too many similarities from two years ago to go against this feeling. They are coming into form just at the right time and I think as the Thais haven't been tested in this competition like Malaysia have.
Mahalli is a key player for me and has put himself firmly in the bracket of the Most Valuable Player as his contributions down the right side have caused mayhem to all he has faced. Norshahrul will work tirelessly, Robbat, even though he is only 20, will be a future star, and with Aidil Zafuan and Fadhli Shas, the Tigers have a firm base in defense to build on.
It will not be easy as Thailand will come out all guns blazing but I do believe that if Malaysia can keep things solid at the back for the first 30 minutes that they will win this tie. They however have to score in order to progress as the Thais have that vital away goal but it is not impossible as we saw in the first leg. With two yellow cards to Panupong Wongsa and Theerathon Bunmathan, both defenders, they will be severely tested at the back. But we do know that in Teerasil, the War Elephants have the joint top-scorer of the competition, and Thailand can also be lethal going forward with Datsakorn pulling the strings.
These two can change the game on a whim and both will need to be razor sharp for the return leg. I do believe that Kirati will start up front as well and this will cause problems for the Malaysians as a two-pronged attack will test the defence like they haven't seen before in this competition.
All being said, a cracker of a second leg is expected at the Suphachalasai, but my gut feeling is that the Thais will bow out in this one. It is all coming together at the right time for Rajagobal and his troops and while I think the game will end in a 1-1 draw, I am backing Harimau Malaya to go through on penalties.
Only time will tell.
Former professional footballer Paul Masefield is ESPN STAR Sports' football pundit and commentator. Catch him on the LIVE coverage of the AFF Suzuki Cup when Thailand take on Malaysia this Thursday on ESPN and STAR Sports (check your local listings) from 8.00pm and don't miss our pre-match studio presentation half an hour before!