SINGAPORE: Nippy winger Safawi Rasid struck a brilliant hat-trick to inspire Malaysia to a 4-0 victory over Laos on Thursday (Dec 9) for their second straight win in Group B of the AFF Suzuki Cup 2020.
Harimau Malaya head coach Tan Cheng Hoe was credited for his bold move in revamping the midfield and attack, resulting in a more effective performance from his men compared to their opening 3-1 win over Cambodia on Monday.
Laos started the game at Singapore's Bishan Stadium by pounding the Malaysian goalmouth with three attempts in the first five minutes.
But they were caught flatfooted when Malaysia launched a counterattack, with Safawi coolly tapping in a pass from Arif Aiman in the seventh minute.
Three minutes later, Malaysia nearly doubled their lead, but Syafiq Ahmad’s header hit the post while the follow-up attempt by skipper Aidil Zafuan hit the bar.
It was then left to Safawi to make it 2-0 for Malaysia when his header, off a corner taken by Arif Aiman from the left, sailed past Laos goalkeeper Keo-Oudone Souvannasangso in the 34th minute.
Malaysia continued to hammer Laos' defence in the second half.
First, midfielder Baddrol Bakhtiar's powerful long-range drive missed the target by inches in the 56th minute. Three minutes later, Safawi’s free-kick attempt was pushed out by Keo.
Malaysia then brought on striker Shahrel Fikri to replace Luqman, and the substitute had two chances in two minutes to find the net.
But his 72nd-minute effort was saved by Keo while his 73rd-minute attempt hit the post.
Malaysia, however, did not have to wait long for the third goal as, off a quick counterattack, defender Shahrul Saad received a through pass from Baddrol to slot home in the 78th minute.
Two minutes later, Safawi completed his hat-trick with his fourth goal of the tournament when he latched onto a through pass from substitute R Kogileswaran, before steering a grounder to the right side of the Laos goalmouth.
Malaysia coach Tan was happy with the win, but said there was room for improvement.
“It was another great performance from the players and three points that gives us a morale boost, but I still feel we need to be more composed at the start of the match to get the right rhythm, and I’m hoping that will improve match by match," he said.
“As for Safawi, I strongly believe he has a big talent and shows great discipline in training. He realises he’s an icon in Malaysian football and he needs to work hard to reach and keep this level.”
Laos coach V Selvaraj said that he was proud of his players, despite the scoreline.
“We started differently from the first game, and of course, player-to-player, Malaysia are a different level to us, but I’m proud of how the players pushed themselves and were adventurous," he said.
"We need to remember that this is a very young squad, and it has been a good opportunity for them, so we will learn and grow from this experience.”
Malaysia currently lead Group B with six points, ahead of Indonesia who kicked off their campaign with a 4-2 win over Cambodia in Thursday's other match. Indonesia are ahead of Vietnam on goals scored, with both teams on three points. Cambodia and Laos are fourth and fifth respectively, with no points to show for their efforts so far.
Malaysia face defending champions Vietnam on Sunday, before wrapping up their group stage fixtures against Indonesia on Dec 19.
The top two teams from each group will advance to the semi-finals.
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